There’s this glorious chunk of land betwixt the Mississippi and Missouri rivers that’s become sort of a nexus for the nation’s music. The louder, busier coasts may discount Iowa as a way station, of sorts—driving westward from New York, the rural-farmlife vibes start dialing way up in Iowa before you hit the amber waves of the plains. Traveling eastward from L.A., this is where the blue-collar rustbelt vibe starts kicking back up. If you skip the cities, you’ll find cornfields in the very middle of “the Midwest.”
But equidistant from both the hipsters on the East Coast and the glamour pros on the West Coast, Iowa is freed to sound like anything and everything. Aside from Slipknot, there hasn’t been a huge band to come out of the Hawkeye State yet (though William Elliott Whitmor and Greg Brown both call it home). Iowa’s most notorious musical connection may be as the departure point for Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and the Big Bopper when their plane went down.
Still, the budding music scenes in places like Des Moines, Cedar Rapids, Ames and even Waterloo serve as a summit for music and styles from all corners of the country. As part of our 50 States Project, here are a dozen Iowa bands we think you’ll dig.
Hometown: Des Moines
Members: Anna Libera, Phil Youngg, Ryan Stier, Nicholas Naioti
Annalibera’s 2013 EP sounded like a musical magpie, arms full of sounds and styles as she exits a darker, foreboding forest and into the calming morning sunshine, with sweet, celestial vocals atop thunderous drums, airy synthesizers lacing around booming bass. Our chosen track, here, continues this dichotomy of coarse and comforting, like tender folk and growling rock streaming together into a softened storm. “Vermillion” closes with aptly Iowan lyric: “Here, in the middle of the states…we have broke hearts and made mistakes.”
2. Christopher The Conquered
Photo by Jerrod Jordahl
Hometown: Des Moines
Members: Christopher Ford, Drew Selim, Kyle Gowin, Brandon Ruschill, Nate Logsdon, Kate Kennedy, Donny Peterson, Derek Lambert, C.J. Howard, Brian Stout
Several other blogs and zines have already noted the vocal similarities (in range/delivery) to Jeff Buckley, so we hate to repeat, but, really, if this is your first time reading about Christopher Ford’s music, it’s a quick-yet-effect acquaintance. Those poignant chimes from his piano under his yearning, crackly vocal arches are adorned with jazzy elements like the loungy bass grooves, the swooning winds, the purring brass and the shuffling percussion. His winning charm is subtle and earnestness; if he has to sing a downbeat ballad rife with wary words straight from the heart, he’s going to do it. But if his piano solos are unconventional and his ponderous lyrics seem coy, it’s often downplayed into the decorous blend of instrumentation.
3. Dylan Sires and Neighbors
Members: Dylan Sires, Ross Klemz, Graham Howland
There is a simple (and striking) beauty in the harmonies of Dylan Sires and Neighbors and they clearly know it; it’s central in every one of their songs With the porcelain voice of an early ’60s crooner, Sires is joined by the complimentary coos of Klemz and Howland that sigh so softly yet so spot on that it aspires to the highly regarded counter-melody-classes of, say, the Beach Boys or Everly Brothers. But there are also bongos and surfy guitars, warm pianos and subtle drum fills to strike a more energized pop/rock vibe for the crescendos.
4. Gloom Balloon
Hometown: Des Moines
Members: Patrick Tape Fleming, Christopher Ford
Now, we could have easily (and justifiably) put Poison Control Center in this spot (and maybe we’re cheating a bit and double dipping here, since you really should consider listening to them, either right now, or after you finish reading this list) but this is the new band started by Patrick Tape Fleming, formerly a forceful contributor to PCC, before said group went on hiatus. Gloom Balloon, meanwhile, takes Fleming from the vaulted, vigorous indie-pop of his former band and into the experimental realm of spacey-jazz and electro-lounge grooves, employing tape loops and mellotrons, synthesizers and drum machines. On their latest record, though, they’ve deployed arrangements with full orchestra. This jam’s a little more minimalist compared to the full-length released last December, but crackling drums, honeyed vocals and that indelible earworm of a melody are the perfect soundtrack to a breezy late summer’s stroll, sweetened by the waltz of a syrupy sax and a wispy flute.
Hometown: Cedar Rapids
Members: Rick Noggle
Noggle’s been honing his craft for more than five years (both as emcee and producer), endearingly opting to build a veritable hip-hop scene around his home of Cedar Rapids (as opposed to the enticingly drivable and lucrative escapes offered up in Minnesota or over in Illinois). He set up his own label (Mic Hand Recordings) to forge a collective of equally inspired/likeminded hip-hop artists and facilitate his own releases, including a recent collaboration with fellow emcee Colorless, known as The Other Elements. With provocative lyrics sneered out in a toughened, lower-register, it recalls edgier underground-rap of the early ’00s (ala El-P or Edan).
6. Land Of Blood And Sunshine
Members: Joel Downs, Nicholas Beard
The Land Of Blood And Sunshine inhabit a secluded side of psychedelia, distinct from the typical perception of trippy tie-dye flourishes and tricky guitar effects. This collective makes music from someplace more murky and mysterious. With the bass on the low end, the guitars bending into pricklier minor keys and tribal percussive pounding, it would almost strike an eerie or ominous chord if it didn’t sound so cool, so enticing, so bewitching! Like a half-remembered dream (or a disarmingly welcoming nightmare from which you’re not sure you want to awaken), those vocals are muddied over and down into the middle of the mix, so you can’t quite hear every lyric as clearly as you might like, so you spin again and listen closer…until you’re under their spell.
7. Maxilla Blue
Hometown: Des Moines
Members: Asphate Woodhavet, Touchnice, Aeon Grey
The triumphant trifecta—a DJ, a producer, and an emcee—Touchnice, Aeon Grey and Asphate, each operating at complimentarily high calibers and forging stunning and eclectic hip-hop; the trio unleash these rolling bass grooves that just lock you in, with taut beats kicking forward under galvanizing lyrics characterized by masterful utilization of metaphor and wordplay. “I wish we would bend spoons more, and quote the Matrix less,” Asphates raps on this 2012 single (“Lego Blocks”), as he wrings his voice into higher registers towards its close, with Aeon Grey dashing in whirring brass and Touchnice pulling back the beats for a few bars, only to let it all drop back into hypnotic rhythm. Tight, tough, though-provoking.
Members: Nate Logsdon, James Doxon, Kate Kennedy, Kai Tanaka, Chris Lyng, Donny Peterson, Paul Hertz, Brian “Wild Man” Stout, Dave Atchison, Little Ruckus, J Parry, Lesbian Poetry (Elliot Burke), Jens Hoifeldt, Patrick “Patch” Jasper
We’re really not sure how to describe Mumford’s. We’re really not sure that we can. There’s one side of it that sounds like a mashing of punk and metal while there’s another side that goes into tripped-out psychedelic folk; but then there’s a spooky blues side, an experimental indie-rock side, and even a side where chamber pop gets splattered with freestyle jazz. We know they’re a hell of a thing to see live…as well as a hell of a thing to try to categorize.
9. River Monks
Hometown: Des Moines
Members: Joel Gettys, Drew Rauch, Mallory Heggen, Ryan Stier, Nichoals Frampton, Tommy Boynton
River Monks sing about beasts and lakes, belting odes to reshape the earth itself. That said, we know it’s cliché to describe music as “organic” or “outdoorsy,” but when their songs about your skin or the stones you step upon or even the perceptual embodiment of home inside another human being, well, you can’t get more organic that that, really. But while there’s all the usual suspects of Americana/folk here, (banjos, pedal-steel and clattery makeshift percussion), the five-part harmonization and pounding bass drum, along with the meaner moments with those riffy guitars, seem to suggest that this group are conscious of the theatrical impact of a more rock-oriented energy.
Members: Phil Young, Jordan Mayland, Chris Marshall, Cory Wendell, Joryn Brown
The duo behind Tires are clearly into some gnarlier stuff, from noise-rock to kraut-rock, punk-rock to synth-rock, inclined to smash the sound of guitar and keyboard together into a groovy gale that pushes, like a forklift maxing at 80mph, pushing the listener ever forward. In fact, that insistence on progression is represented in the titles of their albums and songs (EP 2 goes into EP 3, while song “10” goes into song “11” and so-on). But it isn’t all about tidal wave grooves and danceable beats; they’re clearly keen on experimentation, with caustic guitar gargling and UFO-sounding synth blips consistently haunting the further reaches of each song’s atmosphere.
11. Trouble Lights
Members: Adrien Daller, Phillip Rabalais
Now you you might not expect a substantial hip-hop scene from such an otherwise unassuming state, nor would you anticipate stark, showstopping electronica, ala Trouble Lights. Producer Philip Rabalais’ looming synthesizers and pounding beats can glisten with an unabashed ’80s-tinged shine at points, but at other times, with its neon-showered dancefloor evocations, it can feel downright cinematic. And Adrien Daller’s alluring vocals are sturdy and soulful enough to fill out the rest of the otherwise minimalist soundscape.
Members: Luke Sires, Harper Sires, Joel Sires, Devin Ferguson
There’s a stigma that rock needs to be rugged, unhinged, off-kilter; that harmonies are for the realm of chivalric doo-wop throwbacks. This quartet prove that perfection can still have some punch. The drums pummel down on you along with wickedly whipped guitars at the bursting opening bars of “Runaway,” one of the more grittier and garage-scuffed songs from their recently released full length Tomboys On Parade, though even this track is garnished by their finely honed harmonization and tight guitar hooks. Power-pop can be empowering, if a band embraces it as fully and as assiduously as Twins.
BONUS: William Elliott Whitmore
We covered William Elliott Whitmore’s breakout album Field Songs back in 2011. But it’s worth revisiting—the ballads of a boy raised on a farm near the Mississippi (sample lyric: “let’s go to the field, we’ll do some work, spend our day digging in the dirt,”). He bent more ears than just ours back in 2011, with the sparse instrumentation of just a guitar (or a banjo), light percussion and that resplendent, raspy voice. These are simple songs for a simple living, worn and hardened by a hard working way of life, affecting something that’s both plain and plainly beautiful.