Caught between Minneapolis, Chicago, and Detroit, Wisconsin is a musical Bermuda Triangle that most touring bands refuse to touch. It’s home to buttrock cover bands aplenty, as well as the annual Cory Chisel Fest in Appleton. But all snarkiness aside, there are some decent local acts worth keeping an eye on from this overlooked state. And while Wisconsin may not have a “sound” in the way Chicago or Detroit might, there’s a core of diverse artists poised to release some incredible new music shortly.
The Present Age (Post Punk)
The Present Age were in the process of a musical metamorphosis when the pandemic hit, causing their latest EP to largely go under the radar due to lack of live performance opportunities. But even so Songs From Underground sees the band move from their emo and pop roots into something, dare I say, more aggressive. These songs are more urgent and more direct; this is augmented by a fuller, more experimental sound instrumentally as well. And while the band allegedly has more songs in the works, it would seem appropriate for them to be released after shows resume. This is a band best experienced live.
Flower Basket (Jazz Rock)
The group’s first EP dropped earlier this year, and it’s extremely promising. While some of the production seems to suffer a bit, the songwriting is mature, and it’s clear all members are talented. These tracks are smooth and groovy, and I hear hints of some of my favorite artists here. Call me an instant fan.
Immortal Girlfriend (Synthwave)
Milwaukee-based Immortal Girlfriend manages to churn out appropriately-urban, synth-heavy songs that might as well be bathed in neon. And while their sound continues to shift and develop, they remain on top of their craft. With a new single out, we can hopefully expect more soon.
Asumaya (Math Rock / Experimental)
Bass, drums, mbira, auxiliary percussion, and live looping all meld together for a jaw-dropping live experience. There’s nothing quite like this, and Asumaya’s arrangements break any notion of looping simply being lazy. Omniphobic dropped in 2018, but my guess is songwriting had not slowed in the meantime, and we’ll soon be greeted again by one of the most compelling solo acts out there.
Canyon Spells (Indie Pop)
Canyon Spells wields multiple keyboards, tight drumming, and powerful vocal hooks for a brand of indie pop that harkens back to bands like Snow Patrol, Keane, or early Maroon Five. The group has been pretty quiet since their rebrand and debut album in 2016, but perhaps a return is due.
Tapebenders (Alternative Rock)
Milwaukee’s Tapebenders pay homage to bands like Radiohead and Mew with experimental, immersive rock arrangements. Previously, the band kept good pace releasing new material every few years, and here’s hoping the pattern continues.
Cold Soda Club (Pop Rock)
Here’s another casualty of the pandemic. Cold Soda Club formed while its members were in college together, and they made their mark locally playing their unique take on modern and classic hits. Their first EP was promising, but their debut LP managed to easily eclipse their previous work. While the band is still largely known for their extended cover sets, it’s a shame the group wasn’t able to capitalize more on their original work. No doubt, the band is looking to take the stage again soon.
Cave Paintings (Progressive Rock / Folk)
Cave Paintings relaunched in 2019 and toured extensively through the state. All of that quickly came to a halt. But if their Primitive EP is any indication of what their forthcoming LP will sound like, listeners can anticipate a mix of complex song structures paired with philosophical murmuring of life, love, and loss.
Danen Kane (Soulful Singer-Songwriter)
If local artists feel like a blight on the musical community, Christian artists can be an even lower level. But Danen Kane writes earnest, compelling music from a perspective of faith that certainly cements him as the Christian artist to watch in Wisconsin. Recent health issues have been an obvious roadblock in many respects, but fans are eager for some new songs.
Dramatic Lovers (Synth Pop)
Dramatic Lovers is a bit of a local supergroup, and the collective songwriting sits on the level you’d expect from veteran artists. Last year saw the release of a remix album and a couple videos, so it’s not a stretch to say more music could be on the horizon.
Queen Quail (Singer Songwriter)
Queen Quail released her first album last year, a muted pallet of ethereal sounds and layered vocals. These spacious compositions shimmer and echo. This is the kind of album that makes great use of three-dimensional space so you’ll want to listen on good headphones or speakers.
Astronaut Husband (Slowcore)
Astronaut Husband seems to churn out music at an unrelenting pace, and he’s already put out some new material this year. You should give it a spin.
Cairns (Chamber / Experimental)
Some songs have words. Some songs have flute. Cairns remains one of the hardest acts to qualitatively describe, but whatever you call it, it’s obvious there’s something unique going on here. Casual listeners might struggle here a bit, but if you’re into something fairly avant-garde, Cairns will not disappoint.
Barely Civil (Emo)
Barely Civil is a rare Wisconsin success story. The band managed to get signed, put out two albums, and even perform on Audiotree. Their latest album dropped last year, so it might be a bit before more is on the way, but now’s the perfect time to get acquainted with this up-and-coming band.
Negative / Positive (Pop Punk)
Following in the steps of Paramore and similar high-energy female-fronted bands, Negative / Positive is fresh off the press with their first album that holds nothing back. The band is still young, so the future seems very promising for the group.
Windsor Drive (Piano Pop)
I remember interviewing Windsor Drive in college somewhere around 2014 about their “soon” forthcoming new album. Well, that album finally dropped in 2019, their first new release since 2012. The band has built their core sound around contemporaries like Mae, Copeland, and Keane, deviating from more traditional piano ballads to disco-influenced pop songs. This album sees the band move further in the pop direction, though certainly in a more traditional manner than larger-name artists. These are mid-00s pop songs, still based around real instruments and real people. While Windsor Drive hasn’t reinvented the wheel, they’ve managed to progress their sound just enough to keep things interesting.
Feed the Dog (Psychedelic Bluegrass)
Feed the Dog has a new album due, and it’s bound to be an interesting one with sizable overhaul to the group’s lineup. Fiddle master Timmy Mac has now taken lead, changing course a bit from the rougher, darker approach on their older releases (example below). Either way, this is a band that’s hard to classify—a band that has just enough roots influence to be classified as such but equally as much experimental rock influence to give them a sound of their own. It might sound trite, but in this case it’s true.
Live Tetherball Tonight (Post-Hardcore)
Drawing influences from the likes of Touché Amoré, Live Tetherball Tonight are bass-heavy, fast, and loud. This tight three-piece trade off vocal responsibilities, all while keep the groove locked in. It’s energetic and fun, and frankly it’s refreshing in a world where many bands are opting for a more typical emo sound—it’s nice to have a bit more punch mixed in. The group dropped a cover back in January, so hopefully more is cooking.
Stream all of the above below: