This weekend, Charleston cassette tape label Academia Tapes Plus will host its first-ever fest with a rock 'n' roll lineup in the backyard of Jack of Cups — all for the price of nada. Ready your earholes for these killer Academia acts:
"Secret Guest is maybe the best live band in town right now," Greg Elias says. "I feel like they're really just starting to hit their stride. And Michael Milam is such an amazing drummer; it's worth going to the show just to see his drumming alone. He's an animal!"
Indeed, the band's 2015 EP, Joker City, seems to be a constant battle between the ominous, jagged riffing of guitarists Brett Nash and Andrei Mihailovic and Milam's meaty, full-kit drumming. There are familiar touchstones here and there on the EP (the murky melodic sensibilities of early Nirvana, the 18-wheeler-on-an-ice-patch careening rhythm section that calls to mind mid-period Husker Du), but Nash's blurry moan of a voice is a potent melodic force all its own.
Dear Blanca's just-out EP I Don't Mean to Dwell is as interesting for the spaces in the music as the music itself. Though they're essentially playing full-tilt, punk-influenced rock, both the band and producer/engineer Scott Solter leave plenty of separation within the arrangements, lending an urgency to the rockers and a vulnerability to the ballads. And singer/guitarist Dylan Dickerson's quivering, wounded delivery is startlingly vulnerable, radiating pain and regret.
"They've had some beautiful new music coming out lately," Greg says. "It's a really emotional experience seeing them live."
Label co-founder Ellen Elias calls the DUMB Doctors' newest album, Pseudoscience, "very good, very noisy, sort of like punk rock," which is fair enough, especially given the buried-in-sludge guitars and the sneering attitude dripping from frontman Scott Dence's vocals.
The only difference really between Pseudoscience and any classic neo-punk album you'd care to name is that it's a one-man show. Dence wrote, recorded, and performed the album by himself, because he'd actually disbanded the group at that point. They're now a quartet again, with new members guitarist Brett Nash and drummer Kain Naylor, plus original bassist Jim Faust and Dence. Onstage they're a raw-and-ragged music lover's dream, full of feedback, fuzz, and general chaos, with solid hooks and pervasive racket just about battling each other to a draw. It's apparently a pretty commercially viable approach, because the Doctors' first album, One, was the first Academia tape to ever sell out of stock.
Greg is enthusiastic about pretty much all of the Academia roster, but he seems to have a special place in his heart for the melodic power-poppers YR LAD, a trio led by singer, multi-instrumentalist, and in-demand producer Harper Marchman-Jones. "They wrote two of my five favorite songs of last year," he says. "And Harper is such a great producer, too. He produced the Secret Guest EP, and he's been involved in so much great stuff. It was so awesome to get to put out his stuff. It's so catchy, and everything on that record, from the backup vocals to the bass playing, is just perfect."
Listening to the band's tracks, it's hard to argue with Greg's assessment. The melodies are indelible, the guitars weave in and out of one another like spider webs, and the vocal harmonies seem to spiral endlessly upward.
If it seems like Indiana Junk is the hardest Academia band for Greg and Ellen to describe, there's a reason for that: "That's us," Greg says. "Ellen and I have been playing together as a duo for about 10 years, and Andrei and Brett from Secret Guest joined us last year."
Their songs are essentially one-to-two-minute whirlwinds of swirling guitars and intertwined vocal harmonies that flash by almost subliminally. The tunes typically jolt to life with an offhanded riff or hi-hat strike, pound out a melody line and a chorus (sometimes just one of the two), then get out.
You should also know that in the band's current live show, there's a keytar involved.
Augusta's Gloom Cocoon is a relatively new band anchored by drummer Jason Walter, and Greg says that the band runs the stylistic gamut. "I've just listened to the first record over the last week or so, and it runs from hardcore punk to extended psychedelic jams," he says.
Walter's previous release for Academia, a 2014 split-album with Billie Vacation called No Funnies/This Is Not A Record...It's A Revolution, was an aggressive '80s-punk influenced sneer-fest that not only recalled the pure attitude era of Agent Orange and the Circle Jerks but featured Walter's artwork as well.
"Issac kind of reminds me of a children's storyteller," Ellen says, and Greg adds that he has a "Jonathan Richman kind of vibe."
There's certainly a childlike innocence and wounded earnestness in Story's stripped-down songs, which often seem to be just an acoustic guitar and drums. "I want to know why everything's wrong," Story plaintively sings on "Baby, I," and though his lyrics focus on romantic confusion, the music is blissfully melodic, acoustic-folk pop.