Although 2020 pulled the emergency brake on live music, Pittsburgh’s punk rock underground is advancing.
New bands continue to form and the release of world-class recordings surpasses every other time in the city’s musical history. Hand in hand with exported records, Pittsburgh has made a name for itself as one of the most exciting live music cities in the United States for underground music, with events like the Skull Fest and regular shows featuring national acts and a large stable of local talent.
From the inside out, it might not look like we’re in a renaissance, but we hit a high watermark with no sign of decline. While we eagerly await the return of live music, there are some punk bands and recordings here that we should check out now – and just to keep an eye out, it’s sure to huddle again in clubs, basements, and bars .
Shortly before the coronavirus brought live music to a standstill last year, a who’s who of experienced A-list musicians consolidated White Stains’ five-piece double guitar line-up with the newly minted singer Keith Caves. Caves, who used to be better known for his artistry than his singing talents, brings an urgent voice into the group that doesn’t round off the sound so much, but rather has jagged edges in the right places. Heavily influenced by the explosive energy of ’80s American hardcore, this is not a tribute act – White Stains takes that sound and gives it new life. While the band couldn’t play a single show in front of an audience in 2020, they haven’t slowed down and produced one of the best hardcore records of the past year. The band’s song, “Quarantine”, is a hymn for our time.
Killer of the sheep
Killer of Sheep remains a mainstay of punk rock in Pittsburgh, defying any hint of stagnation or lack of innovation, even in a pandemic. The group usually maintains a full performance schedule on tour and at home, but has put their energies into working on new material and participating in streaming events like the Punk Black Virtual World Tour. On and off the stage (real and virtual), the group is also a force for radical change, and members have used their voices to organize social justice, political reforms and fundraising. While the group didn’t live up to its headline per se, they were voted best metal band in the Pittsburgh City Paper last year. While his sound is absolutely rooted in the Pittsburgh-based, metal-influenced hardcore scene, Killer of Sheep is punk rock through and through.
Living World has earned a dedicated following among connoisseurs, despite all the easy-to-categorize sounds or the aesthetics of a drawer. Rather than fading into the background with age, the group continues to faithfully attract a crowd, taking every opportunity to play live before the pandemic. Up until that point, Living World has not been able to capture its live energy on one recording, but 2021 could very well change that when they release a new album. While the stages are dark, the band frequently participates in online and streaming appearances – and the clutter on the internet has drawn national attention from labels and flavor makers.
Thirteen years after his last full-length album, Unreal City released an LP in late 2020 that set a high bar for the longtime band. Not that the group hibernated – touring and live shows for more than a decade, as well as a slew of 7-inch releases, have kept Unreal City steadily on the map. This is a band known for whipping up a crowd and being a big draw at home or on tour – this isn’t a band to watch from the corner with your arms crossed.
Punk bands are supposed to run to the ground, burn themselves and fall apart before they get a chance to stagnate, right? What if instead a band goes on, evolves and keeps growing and getting better? You get peace talks. From the start, the peace talks burned with heavy political messages woven into their riffs, and the group has always been able to maintain its energy and urgency. After releasing an essential-to-own album last year there will be more and I can’t wait.