But that's not to say that the southeast is devoid of nerdy music – in fact far from it. Let's not forget that Florida is the home of not just Nerdapalooza but a cadre of artists as diverse as Marc with a C, Captain Dan and the Scurvy Crew and Random Encounter. Likewise, the hub of Atlanta, Georgia has played a crucial role in the development of important geek-friendly artists like mc chris and Childish Gambino.
In short my region, though likely not as recognized for its achievements as New York or the Pacific Northwest, has done a lot for the nerd music meta-community, and I'm proud. Anyone who knows me understands that I am not one of these southerners with delusions of geographical grandeur – something isn't inherently better simply because it comes from "the South." Still, there are a number of bands that manage to channel both the energy of nerd life and a bit of that fire that is the true southern spirit into their music, and I can't help but respond favorably.
It just so happens that two such acts have brand new releases, both of which have handily worked themselves into my regular play schedule. One is bit-pop/hip-hop fusion from some friends in nearby Charlotte, while the other is triumphant genre-hopper from some of my Floridian brothers.
I first discovered The ThoughtCriminals via MC Frontalot's BBS, one of only a handful of bulletin boards that I still peruse. Mikal kHill and the boys opened for Front and company the last time they passed through our neck of the woods, and since that time TC has become both the lynchpin of local nerdcore live shows and a big supporter of the online community.
Interestingly enough, though they've begun to regularly rep nerdcore their full-blown association with the scene has done little to alter the already established ThoughtCriminals sound. Blending smart, snarky hip-hop lyricism, live instrumentation and chiptunes, it was already a fairly geeky blend of musical elements, so I imagine there's no surprise there.
Much the same can be said for their recently released LP Cold Winter. Building on the original rap stylings explored in their debut and refined throughout the making of their Still Standing EP, this newest effort boasts 10 larger-than-life tracks that touch on everything from gaming to partying to relationships. Along the way the listener is also treated not only to some of the tightest songwriting to date from kHill and Sulfur, but also amazing guest spots from five more of nerdcore's greatest.
"Came to Play Some Jams" kicks things off as a musical mission statement resplendent with an intoxicating blend of bass and blips. This solid intro leads us to "I Remember Now," a spacey, aggressive joint that's practically all hook.
"Return of the Antagonist" shines thanks in no small part to the additional talents of Illbotz's Stevie D. It's a two-minute motor-mouth masterpiece that sees three MCs weaving their way through an airy, minimalist beat, and it serves as the perfect lead-in to "Warp Zone (1-2)." A redux of Still Standing's standout track, it bends atmospheric instrumentals and game allusions to great effect.
Dual Core's int eighty shines on "All the Coins," though that's certainly not to undersell the power of the Sulfur and Mikal's own collective swagger. For new fans of the band this one is a proper entry point, though follow-up "Whirling Dervish" is arguably a stronger overall track. Switching gears a bit from rap to blue-eyed soul, it's personal but never off-putting, and most importantly it reminds us that the 'Criminals are still unafraid of musical experimentation.
"You're Gonna Miss Me" relies on a strong guitar hook and delicate harmony vocals to reflect on change and heartbreak. Lyrically, it's not quite as well delivered as many of the album's other offerings, but it's still an enjoyable experience. "Liquid Happy" changes the tone again with a funky meditation on intoxicants (with a fantastic if brief sojourn into the realm of Star Trek), but "Our Time (featuring Beefy)" brings things back with another slice of personal reflection. Beef's contribution adds another amazing texture to a rock-solid album, and it sets the stage for closer "Earthbound."
Featuring the indubitable talents of both Adam WarRock and Random, "Earthbound" retells the story of its namesake with fire and skill. It's a bit of an odd closer for an album so packed full of bald-faced emotional content, but the execution is so flawless that it's impossible to fault. Turning such a banal topic into a veritable anthem of strength and self-determination may not yet be the hallmark of nerdcore hip-hop, but it certainly deserves to be.
Kicking off with a fun and functional band history lesson and concluding with what is certainly my new favorite Random guest verse, Cold Winter is a new high water mark for The ThoughtCriminals. With songs that are each fully realized stories of musical triumph yet still remain short enough to never overstay their welcome it serves as a textbook example of what a current generation album should be. Perfectly tailored to the band's growing audience of heads and gamers it's an easy recommendation, especially as a name-your-own-price release.
Though they are located in the farthest corner of the region, I likewise consider Florida's Sci-Fried another perfect example of my southern musical brothers. The fact that bassist Sunni Simmons likewise cut his teeth in the Carolina music scene is an easy explanation for my affinity for this outfit, but the truth is I dig Sci-Fried from top to bottom.
Original in concept, eclectic in scope and incomparable on the live stage, Sci-Fried has been at the very forefront of my list of iconic geek rock acts since my first introduction to the band. Melding the bombast of southern-style arena rock with country, metal, comedy and soul, Sci-Fried is undeniably in a class by itself.
Their third studio album, Future Tense, only serves to drive this point home because, while it skews heavily toward the aforementioned elements, it also expands their scope into even more styles and musical concepts. And with the proper album release a scant two says away a review is long overdue.
Future Tense kicks off with the title track. Truthfully it's little more than an intro bumper, but it's a humorous set-up that, while it doesn't always make a ton of narrative sense within the album-proper, does showcase the band's playful side and flair for the dramatic.
"Geek Rock" kicks things off in traditional Sci-Fried style, painting a stark contrast between twee pop and driving blues rock. It helps to define geek rock as a movement and Sci-Fried as its standard bearer. "LV-426" instead brings things solidly back to the realm of fandom music with an Aliens tribute. The vocal interplay between Mike "KSV" Jensen and Dr. Vern is a nice carry-over motif from the previous track, but this is a much darker, denser affair.
"Chosen One" switches things up with a delicate chip intro and a classic console RPG narrative. Though KSV's nerdcore swagger is a tad one-dimensional, he admittedly uses it to great effect. And the fact that the backing track offers up such a tonal change-up really helps to make this one a keeper. Marc with a C's turn on "Foiled Again" likewise helps to power this Legion of Doom tribute track into new territory, and though this one was leaked at last year's Nerdapalooza its properly-layered instrumentation and humorous narrative make it an early highlight.
The transition to "We’re Ready to Believe You" is a tad jarring, but I'm quick to forgive this trespass as this song fills the obvious void of Ghostbusters-themed thrash-funk. Again, the rap stylings don't always seem to be quite within Sci-Fried's wheelhouse, but the band more than makes up for it with heart. "Tech Support," however, powers the band through an incredibly impressive ska-core number that is both unexpected and expertly executed.
Follow-up "Embrace the Darkside" is an appropriately dark Star Wars tale that showcases Vern's powerful pipes, while the moody "Looking Back at Today" ties in well with the premise established by the album opener. It's a smooth piece of Tex-Mex that plays perfectly off cultural mash-up "The Away-Team," another stellar selection that unceremoniously marries Star Trek and the A-Team atop a crunchy metal backing.
"A Silly Song" similarly melds the galloping bassline of Iron Maiden with the humor of Monty Python, and, in an experiment that could have easily proven tragic, manages to come through with flying colors.
"Fifty-One" does the same thing with a vaguely White Zombie-style arrangement and the legendary Area 51, and it does it admirably. Still, it can't help but be diminished by its proximity to the phenomenal country-filk of Firefly tribute "Serenity Lost." Therein the guys once again extend their musical scope, and along the way manage to craft yet another impeccable selection. "Vampires Suck," despite a charming intro and clever use of bell chimes doesn't fare quite as well, but it's an experiment in goth rock that adds another layer to the proceedings.
Future Tense begins its proper wrap-up with the low key "So Far from Home," a dynamic reflection on the Stargate franchise, and the self-explanatory "Evil Dead Guy." There's some nice interplay between the soul of the former and the balls-out rock of the latter, but the most pleasant surprise is the way in which the album takes an 11th hour turn with "Invasion." An elaborate electronic soundscape rooted in the original War of the Worlds broadcast, it closes things out on a high note, once again allowing the listener to revel in the experimental nature Sci-Fried's core aesthetic.
I have long attested that Sci-Fried is greater than the sum of its parts. With Vern's big voice, KSV's sly delivery, Sunni's heavy low-end and co-founders Jim (percussion/keyboard) and Chuck (guitar) serving as artistic tent poles, Sci-Fried is a band where unique personalities and musical backgrounds collide, combine and evolve. Even more so than their earlier efforts, Future Tense drives this message home.
Those in the Orlando area are strongly encouraged to hit up the CD release party this Friday at A Comic Shop. Beer and pizza are provided as is an unforgettable live performance by Sci-Fried and their local allies, and the album itself will be available at a discount. The rest of you are similarly urged to cop it in any form available immediately thereafter. It's a landmark geek rock album that all but demands a prominent place in your collection.