Photo and text by Melanie Stangl
Hi everyone. It’s been a while. But I promised a new installment here before I turned 29, and that deadline is rapidly approaching.
Coincidentally, my 29th birthday (July 17) also happens to be when a one-day version of the beloved Deutschtown Music Festival, “Hands Over Deutschtown,” will be taking place in Allegheny Commons Park. As live music starts to return in the wake of widespread COVID-19 vaccination and lowered infection rates, this scaled-down celebration seems fitting.
To put it mildly, it’s been a tumultuous, difficult year since I last wrote. I imagine I don’t need to recap it. With regards to local music, venues and stages have only recently been able to properly operate again. And the intensity of our celebrations now reflects the depth of loss we felt without them, without so much of what we viewed as normal. Those losses here in Pittsburgh included landmark Pittsburgh music institutions such as Brillobox, The Rex Theater, and Howlers.
I can’t pretend the trauma of this time hasn’t played a role in my long hiatus. I was fortunate that my day job remained stable throughout the pandemic. But keeping up with it in the absence of almost everything that previously provided joy, connection, and stress relief (while in the presence of catastrophic headlines, isolation, and prolonged uncertainty) drained most of my creative energy.
Other, more frequent writers have popped up in the meantime. (Paid or otherwise—hello, Bored in Pittsburgh.) Even pre-COVID, I’d wrestled with a lot of shame and guilt about my inability to be as involved and write as often as I used to, which has made even starting pieces seem overwhelming. Especially when other responsibilities were consistently more urgent and draining.
Concert photography was more accessible and fun, so I leaned into that…until March 2020, when I suddenly couldn’t. My passion for Pittsburgh music hasn’t changed; only my ability to publicly articulate it on a regular basis.
But, in the spirit of music scenes everywhere coming back to life, I’m excited to announce something new: my own website, where I’ll be writing more frequently and less formally about both local and non-local music. It will also host my concert photography, previous articles, and any links to my own musical pursuits. It’s still a work in progress, but you can check it out here: https://www.melaniestangl.com/
I’ll still post any longer pieces to Sound Scene Express too. (And I’m excited to get back to a local show with my camera.) But to re-remember what drew me to music writing in the first place, and disentangle the spark of fun from the guilt and the struggle, I have to take some of the pressure off and do things fully on my terms.
All right, enough about me—let’s get back to the retrospective. After reviewing Country/Folk/Americana for the first installments, we’re moving on to Electronic/Pop. (Click here for parts 1, 2, and 3.)
This is a big umbrella, potentially covering anything from the bubblegum to the experimental. The influences these artists draw from vary widely, but they all have something in common: a knack for crafting earworms that feature at least a little bit of our friend, the synthesizer. In no particular order:
Best Electronic/Pop, Part 1
Ky Vöss – Space Cadet (2019)
Start With: Tiny Words
Want More?: Swallow the Batteries, Picking Locks
*Vöss relocated to New York City very recently, but was Pittsburgh-based when her 2019 and 2020 albums were released.
On Space Cadet’s second track, “Power Trip,” producer/songwriter/multi-instrumentalist Ky Vöss sings, “Hold your head up, you’re a goddess / Step into my rotting office.” First delivered as a venomous whisper, later as a rapid-fire shout, and surrounded by dancing synths, vocal effects, and pounding percussion, this line represents the dichotomy of Vöss’ music well. It’s both ethereal and ominous; wildly imaginative and sharply observant of reality; robotic and vulnerably human. Or, in her own words, “dream pop for the damned.”
Vöss’ first full-length album, Space Cadet, debuted in May 2019. It’s a masterpiece. That’s not hyperbole.
Imagine a sonic blend of the experimental streak and producing/songwriting brilliance of Grimes; the slick, catchy, self-destructive synthpop sensibilities of Mr.Kitty; and the industrial dance rock of early/mid-career Innerpartysystem. That’s a close approximation of Vöss. But ultimately, she’s in a category all her own.
Vöss brings Florence Welch sensibilities to a darkwave, synthpop palette—instead of Greek goddesses in Renaissance paintings, think alien spaceships in a high-res photo of a nearby galaxy. She’s a cyberpunk siren, a knight in glow-in-the-dark armor, charging ahead with striking power and vulnerability at the same time, weaving intricate sonic tapestries with otherworldly sounds and effects that simultaneously hypnotize and energize. There are no bad or mediocre beats on Space Cadet (and I’ve never heard her produce one.)
Her instrumentals, hooks, and voice grab hold of you immediately and blast you into outer space with them. That can mean the dazzling upbeat bounce of “Shelter” (“May the stars provide you with shelter….You breathe fire, so onward and upward,”); the black-hole-heavy mechanized grit of “Industrialize” (“Do what you gotta / to outlive the times / Existence will be sacrifice”); or somewhere in between. No matter the tone or message, she delivers a beat that’s both complex and completely immersive.
Vocal effects such as reverb and delay, layering and echo, and autotune and distortions are used generously and shrewdly. Fans of newer Charli XCX and other hyperpop acts might notice similarities, though Vöss embraces a wider, more nuanced effects spectrum. And they’re impeccably applied to carry subtext about the words they appear on.
A great example of this can be heard in the album’s third track, “Picking Locks.” It’s a more subdued song about childhood imaginary friends—and the comforts they provided—slowly slipping away. Lines meant to capture this childhood sense of escape into fantasy, such as “picking locks,” are pitched higher, immediately echoed, and distorted to the point of being mostly unintelligible. These sounds evoke the higher, singsong voices and occasionally nonsensical chatter of kids at play. Meanwhile, the muffling and deepening of lyrics like “I can hear their voices / I can make loud noises” sonically represents the distance the speaker feels from them now, as if they were across a hazy divide or behind a curtain.
Sometimes, the effects on these lines are even swapped, epitomizing both her desire to retreat to that safer place and her inability to. Vöss’ intuition around choices like these elevates her tracks from simply ‘great’ to masterful.
Her lyrics move effortlessly between imaginary, surreal imagery and raw, concise vulnerability—and often blend the two to amazing effect. That’s the case in album finisher “Swallow the Batteries,” which packs the most lyrical punches per second on the whole record. (No small feat.)
Over one of the most danceable beats yet, Vöss strikes this balance while talking about isolation and anxiety: “Can you guard the door? Just a few months more / All my friends are ghosts, it’s not a metaphor / I feel safe in a crowded space / as long as I’ve got a spacesuit.” Throughout the song, she implies that these struggles aren’t just internal—that our society perpetuates and enables them as well. The song’s opening line doesn’t ease you into it: “I’m not insane / I’m just awake.” But closer to track’s end, this assessment is conveyed with a twist of cyberpunk: “You gotta, you gotta, you gotta, swallow the batteries / You’re gonna need some to process the memories / There’s not a whole lot of things / that serve as remedies.” The fantastical and the candid combined are stronger than either one would be on their own—particularly the way she balances them. This is a case of the whole being greater than the sum of its already very good parts.
All that said, it’s not exaggeration to call Ky Vöss a genius. Space Cadet proves this categorically. Please don’t just take my word for it: get into her now, feel cool when she inevitably blows up, and experience some of the best music to come out of Pittsburgh in the last decade, from any genre.
Space Cadet can be found on all major music streaming and download platforms. Vöss’ similarly impeccable second album, Coping Mechanisms, dropped in September 2020. Since then, she’s put out a music video for the lead single, “Masochism” and released two more stellar tracks and videos: “Funeral Dream” and “Only Humans.” Though she calls NYC home now, it’s Pittsburgh’s honor to have hosted her for as long as we did.
Sad Girls Aquatics Club – Vodkawine (2018)
Artwork by Xiola Jensen
Start With: Oh Billy
Want More?: How Do I Get What I Want, Hearts Disagree
In November 2018, hometown indie pop duo Sad Girls Aquatics Club released their debut album, Vodkawine, into the world. And, as I’ve said previously, I was not ready.
I can’t overstate how much I love this record. SGAC (comprised of Chelsea Rumbaugh and Marie Mashyna, both veterans of the local scene from previous projects) delivers a gut-punch in gorgeous packaging. It’s hazy, holographic heartbreak. It’s dreamy despair. It’s something I didn’t know Pittsburgh—for all the great artists it’s home to—was capable of creating. But I was grateful for the surprise.
On Vodkawine, sweet ethereal synths build, resonate, and retreat in lush, echoic clusters. Sometimes they buzz with anxiety or reach and bend with heartbreak. Though these synths tend to dominate the sonic landscape, SGAC also knows just where to incorporate a more traditional element (classic piano, harp picks and strums, straight up electric guitar) or an atmospheric effect (static, crickets, hand claps, a phone call going to voicemail) to take these songs to the next level.
This includes percussion, too. Their rhythms, tempos, and drumbeats themselves are simultaneously catchy and inventive. Slowdowns and syncopated rolls and hits offer killer surprises. Even when things are more consistent, they provide an intricate, attention-grabbing undercurrent (from genuine bops like “Oh Billy” and “Goth Annihilation” to more melancholy tracks like “How Do I Get What I Want” and “Hearts Disagree.”)
Overall, SGAC’s instincts for immersive sonic layering are incredibly sharp. They do an excellent job of building a feeling, ruminating on it with subtle variations, and going somewhere a bit sideways with it to really drive the impact home. You’re regularly caught off-guard in excellent ways, without the songs ever sounding distracted or disorganized. They’re master experimenters, and you come to trust them almost immediately.
All this provides a devastatingly gorgeous frame for vulnerable, evocative lyrics. SGAC primarily covers the well-explored territory of post-breakup pain and introspection. But with lines such as “Oh no, you’re invincible,” and “But the moon has brought its prophecy / What’s best for you was never for me,” they do so with a striking openness that sets them apart.
Rumbaugh’s and Mashyna’s pretty voices, dripping with cool, are the final piece of this puzzle. Their tone is appealingly lackadaisical, yet the effort they put into both their melodies and harmonies is obvious. They sound similar, and their harmonic interplay tends to happen close together, helping create the hazy, shoegaze-y vibe of the album. (They also take turns singing lead on the record, beginning with Mashyna.) Occasionally producers Ryan Hizer and Dane Adelman sing as well, adding more vocal depth. It’s nothing short of dreamy.
Safe to say, this ain’t your momma’s synthpop. Sad Girls Aquatics Club created magic with Vodkawine. And good news: it’s hangover-free.
Since their incredible music video for “How Do I Get What I Want” dropped, things have been relatively quiet in SGAC Land. However, if their recent Instagram posts and stories are anything to go by, there’s new material currently in the works. I’m damn excited to hear what they do next, and you should be too.
In the meantime, Vodkawine can be found on all major streaming and download platforms. You can also check out their music video for “Oh Billy” (also great) here.
Balloon Ride Fantasy – Balloon Ride Fantasy (2015)
Artwork by Phil Conley
Start With: Species
Want More?: 0100101, The Silver Key
I’ll be upfront: Balloon Ride Fantasy is a weird band. And that’s a great thing.
They’re weird in such a vibrant, well-crafted, and undeniably catchy way. It’s synthpop/new wave with a distinctive sci-fi-inspired streak, bringing robots and imaginary creatures to life with grooves that slink into your mind and refuse to leave. The subject matter of their songs may often be strange and fantastical, but their status as earworms is very, very real.
BRF’s songwriting, production, and instrumental talent make for slick, polished, put-together tracks that still pulse with life and energy. This is true for their entire discography, so picking one album for this list was tough. But in the end, I decided on their self-titled full-length record from 2015. (It’s pretty difficult to get more representative than naming something after yourself, after all.)
On Balloon Ride Fantasy (the album), 80’s influences can be clearly identified, but they’re updated for a modern audience. Lush vocal harmonies between singers Chris Olszewski and Bethany Conley accompany captivating synth tracks, swaggering bass grooves, effect-heavy guitars, and the intensity of a full drum kit. In contrast to Ky Vöss’ one-woman show, Balloon Ride Fantasy is the product of a band. And the construction of these tracksshows off the strengths of each of its members brings.
Former drummer Brian Ganch is highlighted on the record’s fastest track, “Unicenticorn,” while guitarist/synth player/songwriter Phil Conley brings harder rock elements to songs like the conformity-critiquing “Automaton.” Bassist Brad Schneider provides the necessary depth and pulse in moodier tracks such as “PG Sex Scene,” and keyboardist Jordan Wood’s synths shine…well, pretty much everywhere. This many members in a band could easily sound cluttered or messy, but that doesn’t happen at any point on Balloon Ride Fantasy. Their musical compatibility as a unit is undeniable.
Olszewski’s vocal range is impressive, and its tone is distinctive: recalling Silversun Pickups’ Brian Aubert with traces of the higher end of Billy Corgan’s range. Conley’s gorgeous, cool, occasionally icy voice shimmers and dances with Olszewski’s expertly from start to finish. Occasionally, multiple layers from each singer are stacked on top of one another, amplifying the dreaminess. (Such as in the album’s first ballad, “The Anchor and the Sail,” a song that sonically and emotionally evokes the feeling of being underwater.)
Much like Vöss, vocal effects such as distortion, delay, and autotune are integrated throughout the record, though BRF tends to use them a bit more sparingly. It’s hard to overstate the group’s knack for putting together these harmonies and incorporating these effects. They only enhance each song’s energy and atmosphere, never detracting from it.
Lyrically, Balloon Ride Fantasy’s heavy sci-fi inspiration is woven with observations and emotions that come from a more introspective, down-to-earth place. For instance, “Unicorn Fantasy” has a non-human protagonist (three guesses as to which animal it is), but the song’s reflections on isolation and insecurity don’t feel very foreign at all: “Always wanting, far out and separated / Holding onto love, that’s imitated / It’s no wonder I feel evaporated / To hear your voice, fading.” “Automaton,” meanwhile, warns about leaving your head stuck in the sand, avoiding unpleasant news that you don’t want to hear, for too long: “And when you finally care, you won’t know what to fear / ’Cause you won’t find it in line with this coddling stare.”
Lines like these contribute emotional weight, as well as an entry point for listeners who may not be accustomed to this style. Because if you’re not used to hearing lines like “Petrified in a thousand polar lights / Magnetized by a billion nanobytes,” (found in the outstanding chill synthpop track “0100101,” which I suggest checking out their music video for), you might be a bit thrown off.
Then again, maybe the irresistibly danceable beat of the first song “Species” already pulled you in, and now you’re along for the ride. I hope so.
Relatedly—have you ever played Mario Kart? Do you know its signature racetrack, Rainbow Road? “The Silver Key” sounds like what should be playing as you drive on that. It’s immersive and in your face and futuristic. It’s amazing.
The phrasing of the verses alternates between a wall of sound and relative quiet: shaking you up, letting you recover, and repeating. The sonic confidence contrasts nicely with the hopelessness-tinged lyrics: “And this mass is a part of me / In a wave of realities / Watch out, stay ahead of me / ‘Cause this whole world is just a fallacy.” The driving, darker sound transitions about halfway through to something more triumphant. A chorus of joyful “oh’s” is layered with the song’s recurring anthem, one of the most fundamental human desires of all: “’Cause we, we don’t want, we don’t want to be alone.”
It’s a journey of a song…a Rainbow Road you won’t mind taking three laps on. And this is an album that represents some of the very best Pittsburgh electronic/pop music had to offer in the 2010’s.
Balloon Ride Fantasy is available on all major streaming and download platforms. In addition to their first record, 2011’s Monocle City (which I also highly recommend), Balloon Ride Fantasy released a six-track EP, BRF, in 2018. They dropped a killer music video for the lead single “Arcadia” in 2019. And their newest song, “Easy,” debuted in January 2021, following airplay on local radio station 105.9 The X.
Look out for the next installment whenever I’m able to write and post it. If you want to see my writing (and photography) more frequently, please check out my website, https://www.melaniestangl.com/. I’ll post about those updates on my Twitter (@melanie_stangl) and Instagram (@melanie.stangl) as well.
And above all—please keep supporting Pittsburgh music.