Emerging Musicians and Bands from Birmingham: a Pink Wafer Guide
Birmingham is sometimes neglected when it comes to the UK music press. But there’s something clearly amiss here, because England’s second-largest city is home to a vibrant scene of new music. It’s also a particularly interesting one – the influence of both large musical institutions and a rich, unique heritage of making noise shows clearly. Here are 20 of our favourite artists and bands currently at work in the city in 2019.
Dorcha are a freewheeling 5 piece who make music that is proudly genre-less and highly inventive. Their sound, led by drums, vocals, electronics, violin and bass/guitar is hard to pin down – but the band’s self descriptor of ‘barely pop’ is perhaps the most accurate. A good example of their approach is the superb The Miniatures Project: Vol 1 – initially prompted by Anna Palmer writing some ‘tiny’ guitar songs that didn’t perfectly fit the mould, the band then went on to work with other composers to write songs for the band. All of this was then recorded in a day – and like the rest of Dorcha’s work it’s immediate, consistently surprising and brilliant.
Listen to Bruiser.
Award-winning Hip-Hop and Grime artist Lady Sanity has been active on the Birmingham scene for around five years now, and landed the gig of her career so far in late 2018 when she was picked to perform at the Commonwealth Games handover, representing her city to up to one billion viewers across the world. Latest single ‘Noise’ is a percussive grime banger – thick, de-tuned bass riling up against rave style vocal samples in the treble, with Sanity’s aggressive flow driving the track along. Suddenly out of nowhere, the pace drops and Delerious’ production throws us into a neo-soul inflected outro. In under three minutes, Lady Sanity’s dexterity across multiple styles proves why she’s so deserving of her growing fanbase.
Listen to the noise.
A sinister, doomy turbulence has been rattling around Birmingham since 2017 thanks to Squalor Fan. Through a myriad of swelling and almost sentient effects, voice, drums and bass plow on. Their debut self-titled EP has been picking up accolades, and rightly so – rather than pinning down to blank faceless ‘atmosphere’, each track presents a different tack – still noisy, swampy and ominous, but drawing on a wealth of styles and influences. Vocals are used sparingly but with great effect, especially on standout track ‘Bridge’, where slow throbbing bass sits under double-speed ranting vocals that are barely discernible beneath.
Listen to Squalor Fan.
As the name might suggest, Dead Hands play bruising hardcore punk, hard and loud. A healthy dose of thrash and math-core keeps things fresh, and the four piece’s live reputation has seen them tour in Europe and play regularly across the UK. 2016’s debut LP Nobody Exists On Purpose is a breakneck ride through riffs, catchy breakdowns and blast-beats. By the time you get to track 4, ‘Buck Angel’s Challenging Movies’, a slightly melodic outro tricks you into thinking that maybe the record is drawing to a close – there’s so much packed in here that it’s hard to keep track. Sometimes music should be exhausting!
Young Pilgrims are a totally explosive, 9 piece brass band that take the classic approach of modern jazz-soul fusion big bands and throw it full throttle at the audience. Originally commissioned by the influential Jazzlines Town Hall and Symphony Hall, the group formed to make a new take on the marching band format. The result is a hefty slab of brass powered along by wild, loose drumming that almost evokes the legendary Ginger Baker. The band released their debut Little Things back in 2016 and a follow up is expected this winter.
Fire Alarm, released in 2018 by Birmingham’s Hoopla Blue, has a bold and arresting start that immediately makes you take notice. The lead vocal starts in a jarring stutter – then suddenly the effects lift and beautiful rising melody is revealed. Underneath, synth, drums and guitar slot in and out in new configurations, mostly sparse and measured, with occasional swells of fullness. The band has just released an incredible collaboration with Matters (see below), a trance influenced, swirling dance track that feels like a significant departure. Hoopla Blue have clearly got a lot of ideas inside their heads, and we’re very excited to see where they head next.
Hoopla Blue’s recent collaborators are another Birmingham band known for inventive use of electronics. Matters’ background is clearly steeped in post-rock, but again there’s an appreciation of layers, and a growing interest in synthesizers and rhythm highlighted by the recent collaboration. With a slowly developing lineup, the band just played at the incredible Supersonic Festival, and it feels like a confirmation of the rate that they’re currently growing. New recordings and videos are due out soon, and we highly recommend you catch them when they land.
Listen to Black Mere.
Now for something completely different – Bryony William’s maximalist indie-pop is lush, affecting and rousing. Led by her beautiful mid-range voice, the restrained but emotive band behind her roll through the songs with a quiet determination akin to Philadelphia’s Clap Your Hands Say Yeah. Bryony also runs a DIY platform, Grrrl Groannn, alongside Jess Webberley. Looking to document female artists through photography and journalism, their first Zine came out back in 2018 and we’re very excited to see what the next one holds.
Listen to recent double A-side single Growing / Fading.
Steckdose is an outlet for L Burn’s interest in ambient, field recordings, and bass. Earlier this year they released a fantastic collection of live recordings from across 2018 entitled ninefivetwosixteentwentyeighteen. At base level it’s pure, direct ambient – mostly long slow wails of synthesised bass pressure, but additional looped field-recordings and live metallic resonances develop a slow-burn narrative that makes it really special. Steckdose’s music sits perfectly on that knife-edge between relaxation and abject anxious terror, so regardless of your mood, there’s something to sink into across these eight fantastic tracks.
Listen to ninefivetwosixteentwentyeighteen.
Describing themselves as a ‘musical knick-knack drawer’, Odmansbox present the listener with a bevy of sounds and musical touch-points. However, like any good draw of useful stuff, it’s full of surprises and delights, almost every line feeling like a hook. There’s a slightly ramshackle, retro sound to the group, and a particular highlight is Andrew Souter’s voice – shifting between mid-range troubadour and a slightly nonchalant narrator. Their most recent EP A Low Key Affair is a catchy, succinct offering of synth and guitar-led pop meets indie-rock that’s fantastically balanced and a great achievement for a band who have only been around for two years.
Another Birmingham resident with an affinity for hooks is Philippa Zawe, a solo acoustic performer who has been gigging regularly around the city. Philippa pairs her stunning, soulful voice with wistful, melodic guitar – but on her latest EP Disadvantaged the sound ebbs and flows from this gentle simplicity outwards. Harmonised vocals, cello, guitar drums and organ adds new layers of depth not present on her debut ‘Road of Hope’, and her songs are all the more special for it. This new release touches on the ongoing refugee crisis, and proceeds from the record are going to Safe Passage UK, who help young children and vulnerable adults find safe routes to their families.
Listen to Disadvantaged.
A unabashed pop-punk duo featuring two former members of Johnny Foreigner, Yr Poetry have been extremely busy, and last September saw them release a split album with Falls and SUMMERMAN, two bands they were touring Japan with at the time. The music is direct, simple and highly catchy – with fuzzy washes of guitar, yelping dual vocals and satisfyingly heavy drums. There’s a nod to math-rock, both in the emotive delivery but also in the band’s refusal to stay still – after rattling through a few repetitive hooks they’ll suddenly shift across to something else. This is hyperactive pop at its best.
Rising steadily to the top of the garage-rock pile, Table Scraps are one of the city’s more prominent current exports, picking up fans as diverse as Grace Jones and Idles. Their last album, the fantastic Autonomy was released on the legendary American label Burger Records. The music is super-catchy rock, laden with hooks but pulverised through a retro reverb squall. Lead single ‘Failure’ sounds absolutely timeless – perfectly scratchy vocal lines and rolling riffs highlighting their perfectionist approach to making retro pop. There’s nothing groundbreaking here – but as any garage rock fan knows, why fix what isn’t broke?
Watch the video for Failure.
Reflecting neo-soul’s rising prominence in cities across the UK, but distilling her output through a decidedly art-pop approach, Rosie Tee’s sound is an exciting one. Working with electronic producer Dan Cippico, March saw her release the fantastic Chambers EP – a perfect synthesis of diverse and skittish electronics with her lush vocal talent. Chambers is an appropriate title – firstly reflecting her interest in composition and classical arrangements, but also secondly as a descriptor. The sound is expansive, but ultimately restrained and contained enough to avoid sounding ostentatious – making the EP feel almost like a journey through five different rooms of sound.
Antonio Roberts is an incredible multi-disciplinary artist who is best known as a key member of the algorave and live-coding scene that continues to grow and develop across the UK. As HelloCatFood, he crafts sprawling, glistening live-visuals that explode in a full spectrum of colour. Algorave is a truly cooperative approach to club music, and Antonio is prolific collaborator, performing alongside artists such as Yaxu, Heavy Lifting, Algobabez and Renick Bell. As a visual artist and curator he explores ownership and authorship in an age impacted by digital technology, and has exhibited across the world including at The Barbican and V&A. He’s also recently started making live-coded music with Tidalcycles, exploring his development and learning process through live-streams online.
Watch one of his recent live streams.
A power trio of bass, drums and vocals, Haq 123’s music is inspired by Sabbath, punk rock and unadulterated noise. Recently playing at the incredible Supernormal festival this August (run by some of the same team who bring Supersonic to the city every year), vocalist Miller Killer proudly announced to the crowd that ‘a lot more of our friends were supposed to come to this gig, but now they’re all dead’. Miller Killer is ten years old. Drummer Zacattakk is eleven, and they are joined by Dave on bass, who is apparently ‘old enough to know better’. Even if you’re unaware of this fairly unusual age bracket for touring musicians, their recent album Heavy Mess is an absolutely joyful mishmash of electronics, samples and solid riffs.
Listen to Heavy Mess.
Thanks in part to the presence of the Royal Birmingham Conservatoire, the city is a hot-bed of exciting young composers, experimental musicians and conceptual performers. Richard Stenton, who helps run the Post-Paradise series alongside Maya Verlaak and Zach Dawson, is one of these. His compositions are fluttering, voice and sample heavy, and Stenton is particularly interested in the concept of mediums – both in presentation through his publishing outlet Stenton.Press, and in music itself. The 2018 project ‘_messages’ explored both the format that content is published online, and the human medium as an intersectoral point between life and the afterlife.
Listen to Richard’s Soundcloud.
Anna Maria Olsson
Another composer involved in the scene in Birmingham is Anna Maria Olsson who makes electro-acoustic music of a completely different style. A stunning violinist, her latest EP ‘Circles’ was released in June this year and draws heavily on the minimalist tradition. Using the violin for base sounds, she then crafts rich layered instrumentals using Ableton and a midi-controller to create rolling loops. The end result is deeply evocative of the natural environments in motion that Olsson has drawn influence from for this EP.
Listen to Circles.
The Nature Centre
Breakfast Time, the most recent single by The Nature Centre, is utterly bewildering in the best possible way. Densely packed staccato vocals, guitars, synth and drums battle for your attention, none of them sounding exactly as they should. It’s an extremely fun slice of weird pop music, coming across like a hyperactive update on some of the best percussive tracks to come out of Compass Point studios in the 1980s. They’re currently crowd-funding to release their debut album – there’s some pretty great perks including hand-drawn MS Paint pictures, so we highly recommend lending your support.
Another project with its origins at the Conservatoire, Phame is performative, destructive no-wave project centred around mangled guitar and bass. Wielded by Si P and Yxka S, squealing rips of feedback are punctured with grinding metallic sounds to create a truly alien landscape. With the latter hailing from Los Angeles, they proudly present the project as a transatlantic collaboration that looks to challenge the grounds of ‘musical discipline and imperial violence’. They released their debut, selt-titled EP in May and it’s definitely not for the faint-hearted (but it is very, very good).
Listen to Phame by Phame.