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“A musical keg of West Philly weirdo dynamite”: Reflections on two decades of the genre-defying Northern Liberties

Northern Liberties, circa 2003 | photo by Debbie Travis | courtesy of the artist

West Philly post-punk three piece Northern Liberties has been a band for so long that when they played their first show in February of 2000 the neighborhood they borrowed their name from was still a mostly forgotten blip on the radar. Fast forward almost two decades and the band — Justin Duerr on vocals and percussion, his brother Marc on drums, and their lifelong friend Kevin Riley on bass — are set to release their seventh album Parallel Hell later this year.

To say that Northern Liberties sounds like anything else out there would be to do a disservice to what they’ve managed to create over the years. But also this is a band that has comically defied categorization: reviews have compared them to everything from Green Day to Joy Division to Nirvana, Lightning Bolt, Crass, and even Guided By Voices. Clearly something is going on here, even if the band members are usually quite baffled by the comparisons.

“I swear to fucking God this is true: none of us ever heard that God damn Lightning Bolt,” Justin Duerr told The Key. “They weren’t on my radar. I never listened to that much stuff that was noisy. … [but] for the first four years that we played, almost at every show somebody would be like, ‘I get it, you worship at the altar of the mighty Lightning Bolt.’”

Nothing against the Providence bass and drums duo but he’s right: just because Northern Liberties have a similar lack of guitar going on doesn’t automatically make them a noise rock band. Continue reading →

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The Skeleton Key: April is for Balkan big bands, hanging guitars, cult movies, so much jazz, and Sheer Mag

Sheer Mag | photo by Yoni Kroll

Wake up, Philadelphia! I know last month was a long one but here we are in April and I have a full plate of shows for you. So full, in fact, that it’s rare there’s a day without two or three can’t miss events. How wild is that? Even if you never even wanted to leave the house once this month – I don’t know, maybe you just broke your leg or something terrible like that – there’s enough new music from Philly bands to keep you occupied for a long time. Don’t worry, we’ll get to that too. Continue reading →

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The Skeleton Key: March into spring with gigs galore, from Tuvan throat singers to heavy metal headbangers

Jim Shomo exhibit flyer | courtesy of the artist

Major announcement time, Philadelphia: it’s finally springtime! Go out into that sunshine and enjoy yourself! Don’t give me that look; I know it doesn’t look like it. I know that technically speaking we have two more weeks until the official start of the season. But it doesn’t matter. I am ready for winter to be over and if you are too – not judging! I was grinning ear-to-ear while riding my bike through the snow just a couple days ago – I have a full calendar of things going on.

Get that started tonight with the sweet stylings of Merge Records rock n roll powerhouse Mike Krol (no relation) with TVO and Wildflowers of America at Boot & Saddle. If you haven’t listened to these bands, you owe it to yourself, even if you’re not able to get to the show. I’m bumping the new Mike Krol album while writing this and it’s putting me in the best mood. TVO is great and if you haven’t seen Perry Shall’s Wildflowers of America yet I really don’t know what your problem is.

That band just announced a show in West Philly in April with Big Eyes and Dark Thoughts and at some point in the near future they’ll finally put out their debut album. If it’s even half as fun and catchy as their live set it’s going to blow everyone’s mind. Continue reading →

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Anti-Nostalgia: Philly punk vets Dead Milkmen keep looking forward through an array of side projects

The Dead Milkmen | painting by Syd Torchio | via facebook.com/thedeadmilkmen

When The Dead Milkmen reunited for good more than a decade ago, they could have chosen the option so many bands go with and become sort of a nostalgia act. Nobody would have faulted them for it. Those old songs, the ones people really go wild for, they’re inarguably perfect. So bloviate all day about the nature of nostalgia and authenticity, but it pays the bills.

But this is the Milkmen we’re talking about here! They weren’t some one-hit-wonders trying to recapture past glories. They never had the glory! Sure “Punk Rock Girl” landed then on MTV but watch those videos of them on “Downtown Julie Brown” and you’ll see a bunch of mischievous dorks who know that their dance cards might get punched soon and are going to make the most out of this moment. Which is to say: while they had a few years of pretty constant touring, they eventually came back to their day jobs.

This is a band that has always been moving forward, always trying to find new ways to express themselves. This was especially true when they first started and it was 1982 and only one of the members, drummer Dean Clean, had played in bands before. But it’s still true almost forty years later when you hear songs like “The Brutalist Beat” off of the most recent release, 2017’s Welcome to the End of the World, that owe just as much to new wave and industrial as they do punk rock. Continue reading →

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Chasing Daylight: The road to the final album from late West Philly guitar genius Yuzo Iwata

Yuzo Iwata | photo by Elana Iwata | courtesy of the artist

“Goodnight, Daylight Moon” is the final track on Yuzo Iwata’s final album Daylight Moon, released just months before the Philadelphia guitarist succumbed to kidney cancer last June. It is a beautiful, almost haunting song, with Iwata’s guitar soaring over the sparse arrangements.

It’s not a fitting end, since no end is truly fitting, especially when someone dies at just 59, leaving behind a wife, two kids, and a true community of friends. But if there has to be an end, it’s a perfect one, even if it does leave you wanting more.

Iwata never came to prominence in the way we typically talk about these things. In fact, up until this album, very few people knew him as a musician. Instead he was just Yuzo, a really nice and kind of quiet guy who was born in Japan and worked for decades at Essene, the natural market off of South Street. Sure, he was in the absolutely legendary Japanese psych rock band Maher Shalal Hash Baz back in the 80s, and sure he put out a stunningly brilliant solo album in 1999 called Drowning In The Sky, but it’s not like he went around telling people about it. There was a short tour of Scotland with Maher in the late 90s, but outside of that, barely any other shows until the last couple years.

His reemergence into music came on like a thunderclap. A lot of people were simply stunned, both by Iwata’s songs and the fact that he had been so inactive for so long. It was like he was coming out of nowhere, despite the fact that he had been playing music for decades.The shows he was able to play were packed and the first pressing of the album, released on local label Siltbreeze, sold out in a couple weeks, though Jordan Burgis — who recorded and helped produce Daylight Moon — said that it will be repressed later this year. The cancer came on during the mid-point of the recording process, which started in 2014. By the time the album was finally out he was very sick. The last show he played was at the Philadelphia Record Exchange in March of 2018. Continue reading →

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It Takes Two: Philly jazz punks Writhing Squares up their game on Out of the Ether, share their favorite duos

Writhing Squares | photo by Peter Kerlin | via facebook.com/thewrithingsquares

Two piece rock bands are kind of the redheaded stepchildren of the scene. They’re treated as an anomaly and a freakish one at that. It’s part of the reason why events like Two Piece Fest, which is coming up at the end of the month, have thrived. There’s a community there, a familiarity and solidarity even among bands that have seemingly nothing in common but their number of members.

Some two-piece bands are formed out of a sense of desperation – they can’t find a third member or somebody quits and they decide to just make a go at it – and others from a drive towards innovation. The word ‘experimental’ gets bandied about a lot when talking about duos, even when they’re playing utterly straightforward music. Still, there’s something to be said for the power of pushing the boundaries of what just two people can create.

If you want to see a prime example of that look no further than Philly two piece Writhing Squares and their sound that’s at the midpoint between prog, pysch, jazz, and punk. Their latest album Out of the Ether was just released on Trouble In Mind Records and they’re playing a record release show tonight at Kung Fu Necktie with Sparrow Steeple and Headroom.

The fact that neither Kevin Nickles or his bandmate Daniel Provenzano play drums wasn’t a deterrent when they decided to start Writhing Squares more than five years ago. Continue reading →

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The Skeleton Key: From a J Dilla tribute to rock n’ rollers galore to so much jazz, we’re looking for love in all the right places this month

Writhing Squares | photo via facebook.com/thewrithingsquares

January might be the traditional time to make resolutions and talk about how we can go about bettering ourselves or whatever it is you’re trying to do with your life but let’s be honest: February is when stuff starts to get real. I can’t help you stop smoking or go to the gym more often, but if you’re resolved to go to more shows I’ve definitely got you covered.

This month is incredibly jam-packed with all manner of events, from avant garde jazz to wild metal to a stacked J Dilla tribute. And that’s all just in the next week! Have you ever just contemplated how lucky we are to be living in one of the best cities in the world? I have. That’s why I do this column. So let’s get started! Continue reading →

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Ramping up Philly DIY with Ramp Local label

Very few labels start on purpose. Normally it’s just something that happens, a confluence of circumstances, an accident – but hopefully a happy one. You or your friends are in a band that’s recorded something and you want to put it out but you don’t think any existing label would be interested and so you say, “It’s DIY music so I can just do it myself! And really, why stop with just this release when I can be a resource for others? I mean, how hard can it be?”

The answer, as anyone who’s ever stumbled into running a label, is simple: it’s close to impossible. There are so many pitfalls, so many ways things can go wrong, so many ways to lose lots of money and have little to show for it but a few hundred records tucked away in storage forever. The rewards are equally plentiful, which is why so many people go down that route.

Jake Saunders has been walking that tightrope since being handed the keys to Ramp Local, the label he’s been running for the last couple years. It was started by Trip Warner of Wharf Cat Records in Brooklyn – home to Urochromes, WALL, Flasher, Bush Tetras, and a ton more amazing bands – as “a way for him to release more experimental, obscure stuff” on cassette, according to Saunders. Since taking it over, he’s expanded things to also include vinyl releases, most recently a record for Harrisonburg, VA “industrial blues” two piece Buck Gooter. More on them later.

Saunders explained that he initially met Warner while booking shows in Brooklyn. He was putting together a compilation that included a track from Sediment Club, who Wharf Cat has worked with in the past, and Warner suggested that Ramp Local could release the cassette. They started working together shortly after that tape, called Eclectic Sessions, was put out in October of 2015. According to Saunders, “After a while, I was kind of just getting into it and he said, ‘You can run this shit, man’ and he handed it over to me no questions asked. I think he just had too much going on.” Continue reading →

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The Skeleton Key: Ring in 2019 with Tuareg desert jams, the return of chiptune legends Chromelodeon, Kenyan benga rock n’ roll, and so much more

Hank Wood | photo by Yoni Kroll

I forget, are we supposed to take flying cars to the gig or just view it on our VR goggles? The future is so complicated.

Welcome to 2019! I hope you’re all totally recovered from whatever you did to yourself on Tuesday and Wednesday and ready to tackle the new year. There’s a lot to look forward to over the next twelve months. Hell, there’s a lot to look forward to just between now and February. So let’s get started with the year’s first Skeleton Key, your monthly news and gossip column covering all things Philadelphia DIY. Continue reading →

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The Key’s Year-End Mania: DIY Crystal Ball — Yoni Kroll’s most anticipated Philly music happenings of 2019

photo by Farrah Skeiky via facebook.com/breakfreefest

Year-End Mania is the Key’s annual survey of the things below the surface that made 2018 incredible. Today, Key writer Yoni Kroll takes a look at what’s ahead in the local DIY scene.

When I was at Drexel I took this class on “Sociology of the Future” where a big chunk of what we did was learn how to make accurate predictions of what’s to come based on analysis of the past and present. Pretty cool, right? I’d like to say that I learned a lot about prognostication and general soothsaying in this class but considering my, uhh, educational fortitude back then it’s doubtful I showed up half the time.

Still, I don’t need a crystal ball to tell all of you about some of the amazing things we have to look forward to in 2019. So put away those tea leaves and save those complicated star charts for another time and let’s take a look at everything in store for us over the next twelve months. Continue reading →