1. Help (87 points)
SOUNDS LIKE: Your favorite pop band tore up its big record contract, joined an anarchist street gang and decided to write the soundtrack to the next riot.
NOTABLE VOTES: Jackpot Recording Studios owner Larry Crane, XRAY FM program director Theo Craig, Tender Loving Empire record label manager Aaron Meola
It's been a long time since Ryan Neighbors has had the chance to scream his guts out onstage.
A former touring member of Portugal the Man, the Salem-raised musician has spent much of the past decade massaging keyboards and cooing electro-pop songs as the frontman for the synth-driven trio Hustle and Drone. He's good at it, and he still enjoys doing it. But two years ago, while catching a set by Canadian noise-rockers Metz at Mississippi Studios, it dawned on him just how much he missed the wild, larynx-scraping abandon of his teenage punk days.
"Shouting's fun, but now I just shout at my friends," recalls Neighbors. "I want to shout in a band again."
Two of those friends, Bim Ditson and Boone Howard, were at the same show and experienced a similar epiphany. Like Neighbors, both are well-known figures in the Portland music scene. Howard led psych-pop group the We Shared Milk before branching out as a sharp-edged singer-songwriter, while Ditson is such a presence in the local rock scene—as the drummer for the long-running indie-rock outfit And And And and as a face in the crowd at seemingly every show in town on any given night—that he's practically its unofficial mascot. (He also mounted a serious campaign for mayor in 2016.) But it had also been a while since either were in a band that really allowed them to let loose.
And that, really, is all it took to bring Help into the world.
Sure, there are other reasons they decided to tap back into the sound of their raging adolescence. Angry times call for angry music, and all three members are as pissed off about the current state of the world as anyone else. But at the core of Help's existence is the simple thought Neighbors had that night at Mississippi Studios—that shouting and sweating and throwing yourself around a room is fun, and it's even better if you get to do it alongside your best buds.
"There's not a huge number of useful, productive things on offer for a group of friends to do in any city in America," says Ditson from the back porch of Firkin Tavern in Southeast Portland, where Help played its first show last July. "There's not all that much going on. It's mostly just drinks. They don't even have bowling centers anymore. You can't get a skill out of it. What else are we going to do? If you want to be friends, you have to have a band."
But that's not to say Help is just some after-work social club, or a way to fill the void between more high-minded projects. It might not sound like the music anyone would expect its three members to make together, but it's a potent reminder of why they each got into music in the first place.
Neighbors, in particular, grew up destroying his vocal cords and abusing guitars in hardcore bands. Ditson, too, comes from a punk background, and with his leather-and-chain-mail wardrobe, still looks the part. Howard admits, somewhat shamefully, that he spent his youth dabbling in pop punk. As they got older and their tastes broadened, however, the simple pleasures of making a racket faded, replaced by an interest in supposedly more sophisticated concerns like melody and texture.
"That hit me at one point in high school, being like, 'Punk rock's just for angry teenagers,'" Neighbors says. "'Who's Radiohead? Now I'm going to like this forever.'"
But years of exploring other genres taught them that aggression and songcraft don't have to be mutually exclusive—not to mention helped develop their instrumental chops. On Help's debut 7-inch, the playing is underpinned by musicianship that wouldn't have been there when they were younger. Songs like "The Devil Is a Snake" and "Pennies on the Ground" have a careening quality that goes beyond basic three-chord thrashing—it's a wall of sound that's in the process of crashing down on top of your head. It's simple, but they never intended it to be easy. Or, as Ditson puts it, "It'd just be boring if it was boring."
Of course, the difficulty with returning to heavier music after so many years is that the sheer physicality of it can be jarring. Onstage, Neighbors has rolled his ankle and injured his knee trampolining off the old tire they use to hold the bass drum in place, and he nearly vomited in the studio from the guttural force of recording his vocals. For Ditson, especially, playing in Help is like musical CrossFit—live, he's shirtless and drenched within minutes, huffing and puffing between songs like it's the second overtime of an NBA Finals game.
"Bim is in constant pain," Howard says, only half-jokingly.
While they often come away from their live shows looking and feeling beat up, the members of Help admit there's a cathartic element to the performances that they don't get from their other projects. That's true of the lyrics as well. Though there's a pronounced political edge to the band—one song is called "Class War Now," and they play in front of a screen-printed banner depicting an airplane slamming into the World Trade Center next to the grinning visage of George W. Bush—the songs aren't just a reaction to the Trump administration, or to anything specific to this particular moment in time, except the internal turmoil that's exacerbated by the outside world.
"It's not much of a stretch to take political viewpoints from empathy or human emotion," Howard says. "I wouldn't like to draw a line of being a political or personal band."
"If those are different," Ditson adds, "then what you have is bad politics."
It makes sense that the band wouldn't want to date themselves, because they plan to still be around whenever the White House turns over. They bristle at the notion of Help being just a side project, as if it's just a temporary diversion, or a placeholder to be tossed aside. Help may be less palatable for mainstream consumption than their other bands, but right now, it's no less of a priority.
"I've never thought of stuff that way," Ditson says. "Why would you do something if you didn't mean to? There's no backburner stuff that exists."
NEXT SHOW: June 21 at Mississippi Studios for WW's Best New Band Showcase.