5 Denver Bands to Watch
With the City Series, TIDAL investigates the local music scenes of U.S. cities. Enlisting the expertise of a locally-based music writer, we explore the past, present and future of music in each town. Tom Murphy has already taken us on a tour of Denver Music History and given us a comprehensive guide to the Denver scene today. Wrapping up our look at the Mile High City, Murphy has highlighted five Denver acts to watch out for a breakout on the national scene. Keep an eye out for our next stop in the City Series: Portland, OR.
Ever since Rubedo appeared on the scene, you knew you were seeing something a little different.
For one thing their name refers to a concept in alchemy. And while possessing serious technical chops as musicians, Gregg Ziemba, Kyle Gray and Alex Trujillo take their music in a decidedly fun direction, crafting strange pop songs informed by a kind of prog rock sensibility – not in a stilted, overthought manner but in a loose, even playful way without making a joke of the music.
Following their 2010 debut EP Lapis Sephorum, Rubedo connected with the late genius Isaiah “Ikey” Owens (keyboardist for The Mars Volta, Jack White) who produced the group’s two full-length albums, 2012′s Massa Confusa and 2014′s Love Is The Answer. Thanks to the affability of its members, Rubedo has fallen into some fortuitous opportunities such as a month-long stint playing at Denver International Airport, putting together Blackboard Music Festival in downtown Denver and becoming the unofficial house band for the now-defunct, much-beloved DIY venue Unit E. Rubedo’s connections have also helped the band independently book national touring gigs.
With a completely unaffected and positive spirit to its shows, Rubedo is instantly likable performing its imaginative songs. Ziemba also plays drums in the fantastic Denver hip-hop outfit Wheelchair Sports Camp, another band to keep a keen eye on.
Primitive Man formed from members of other Denver heavy bands, including Reproacher, Withered, and Clinging to the Trees of a Forest Fire.
The band’s original sound is one that reconciles the heaviness of death metal, the aggression of grindcore and the meditative pace of doom. Singer-guitarist Ethan McCarthy has long been one of the heroes of underground music in Denver including his tenure running the warehouse spaces Kingdom of Doom, Blast-O-Mat and Aqualung’s Community Music Space, and remains a respected figure in booking shows at various venues that welcome extreme metal and its ilk. Along with bassist Jonathan Campos and drummer Isidro “Spy” Soto, McCarthy has forged a new sound for the band, which coincided with its signing to noted heavy music imprint Relapse Records.
Primitive Man’s 2012 album, the thrillingly forbidding Scorn, was a critical success as well as a hit with fans. 2014 has seen the band ramp up its releases with four split records with Hessian, Fister, Hexis and Xaphan, as well as a noise-oriented tape called P//M. The band was recently selected to perform at the 2015 iteration of the prestigious Roadburn Festival in the Netherlands.
Snake Rattle Rattle Snake
Since forming in late 2008, Snake Rattle Rattle Snake has followed a consistently upward trajectory.
Sourcing members from popular projects in the Denver underground (Monofog, Red Cloud West, Achille Lauro), the band initially had a darker dance-punk sound. But rather than issuing of shallow, throwaway sentiments, Snake Rattle’s lyrics, penned by singer Hayley Helmericks, reveal a band concerned with complex but stark themes cast in sharp relief. The new sound of the band, which really started to gel in 2012, took a turn for the dark – less obviously danceable but deeply rhythmic nonetheless.
Following up their critically hailed 2011 debut, Sineater, Snake Rattle Rattle Snake just released their second full-length, Totem. More diverse, more powerful, more weighty and provocative, the band’s new record is quite the opposite of a sophomore slump. Rather than sounding like any combination of elements that gave success to its members’ former projects, or what worked with Sineater for that matter, Totem is the sound an act that has molting its skin and emerging more unique and realized than ever before. The only traces that remain are a proclivity for sonic darkness, a capacity for crafting thrillingly electrifying and brooding atmospheres and a creative flair to rhythm.
Few bands, local or otherwise, are capable of reinventing themselves for the better. Snake Rattle Rattle Snake has, in the last two years, recast itself as a world class band.
It would have been tempting for the members of Speedwolf to make a weird hybrid of hardcore and thrash.
Then again it might be argued that they did, at least to the extent that Motorhead and Venom aren’t bands with an exclusively metalhead fan base.
Speedwolf makes no bones about the fact that it’s making music based on heavy rock of the late-’70s and early-’80s, with the stripped down sensibilities of punk before a lot of that music overcomplicated things. The band’s songs are about riding motorcycles, doing drugs and getting into trouble, but done so with such joy you can’t even be sure if they’re being serious. They mostly are, but there’s no doubt that this is a band with sense of humor.
The music itself isn’t a joke, but it’s clear these guys don’t take themselves too seriously. On the song “Denver 666″ the band outlines some of the down and dirty fun you can have in the Mile High City, with the associated music video becoming an instant Denver classic. The group has performed with numerous other noteworthy and likeminded bands, but its tour with Napalm Death in 2012 proved Speedwolf has a sizable crossover appeal beyond the realms of punk and thrash.
Denver area native, Ryan Mcryhew, performed in various experimental projects for years before adopting the moniker Thug Entrancer.
Mcryhew had been in experimental dub-world music project BDRMPPL for a few years and the more pop-oriented Hideous Men all while exploring solo electronic music as Thundercade. It was in the latter that he first employed a modular synth, but not with the compositional capacity he owns today.
Thug Entrancer was the product of a lot of alone time Mcryhew had living in Chicago while his wife (and Hideous Men bandmate) Kristi was earning an advanced degree. There Mcryhew was exposed to Chicago house and Detroit techno that informed some of the ways in which he began making his own music.
While in Chicago, Mcryhew made friends with Daniel Lopatin, better known for his famous electronic project Oneohtrix Point Never. Thug Entrancer’s sophomore record, Death After Life, influenced by the music and myth of Notorious B.I.G., was released on Lopatin’s Software Recording Co. imprint earlier this year. Thug Entrancer occasionally plays local shows but generally tours throughout the U.S. and Europe.
[Editor's Note: In the spirit of exposing music being made at the grassroots level, we'd like to mention several more Denver bands that are worthy of mentioning but not yet established enough to make their music available for streaming.]
Ancient Elk has been ambitiously gigging around the Denver underground as well as opening for several national touring acts. The band’s first gig was a performance of the 1967 album The Velvet Underground & Nico in its epochal entirety. Ancient Elk represents a synthesis of various sounds that have informed a wide spectrum of musical styles that have been running through Denver. Reconciling seemingly incompatible ideas from its members differing backgrounds, the band threads together Americana, psychedelic rock, jazz and experimental music in an original way that is also incredibly accessible. They released self-titled cassette EP in July 2014.
Blending punk attitude and passionate vocal displays with expertly crafted dance songs, electronic pop duo Church Fire isn’t really like anything else in Denver. Its closest musical equivalents might be bands like Phantogram, Future Islands and Crystal Castles due to their combination of physical presence with impossible to ignore pop melodies. Though yet to play far outside of Colorado’s front range, Church Fire performs frequently in the city and somehow seems to get better with every entrancing show.
Echo Beds was founded by underground music veterans Keith Curts and Tom Nelsen. With backgrounds in various punk, hardcore, and experimental bands since the ’90s, the duo creates one of the only genuine organic industrial sounds in Denver. Seeing Echo Beds is truly an unforgettable experience, which finds Nelsen beating on oil drums and screaming politically-charged phrases like a tortured animal, while Curts plays strident, highly distorted bass rhythms while crying out dreamlike yet urgent social critiques. Even if you aren’t on board with the words or the sound itself, it’s a sight to see.
Best known as the extremely talented lead guitarist for the rock band Ark Life, Natalie Tate is also a distinctive solo performer in the Denver scene. Singer-songwriter types are a dime a dozen in most towns, but Tate defies all generic categorization when you hear the warm, emotional timbre of her singing, the strong, tasteful beauty of her phrasing, and her creative skill as a guitarist. She possesses that magical combo of immense vocal talent and expert musicianship that never goes out of style. Recently recruiting avant-garde pop group Chimney Choir as her backing band, Tate’s next album is sure to make waves.
Tom Murphy is a native of Aurora, Colorado. He is currently a freelance contributor to Denver-based alternative weekly magazine Westword. He has written for Gutter Bubbles and Cairn, as well as writing about music for The Onion. When not writing or exploring unusual places around Denver, he plays guitar and synth in experimental ambient band Pythian Whispers. He’s currently working on a history of underground music in Colorado, tentatively titled High Plains Underground.
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