1. Lithics (82 points)
SOUNDS LIKE: Mutant disco made for actual mutants, played by the last humans left in the sewers after the coming Trumpocalypse.
NOTABLE VOTES: Bunk Bar co-owner Matt Brown, Raf Spielman of Woolen Men, Jem Murciano of the Ghost Ease, drummer-about-town Papi Fimbres.
Aubrey Hornor looks like she's trying to burn down the Know with her mind.
It's a Tuesday night in early March, and Hornor's band, Lithics, is the third of a three-act bill at the newly relocated punk dive. She isn't pissed at their placement or anything; that's just how she looks when she's onstage. While the three other musicians around her lock into taut, angular post-punk grooves, the 32-year-old frontwoman adopts what's best described as a "death stare," an icy, unflinching gaze that complements her deadpan delivery and violent, expressionist guitar-playing. She doesn't appear to be focusing on anything in particular, but it sure seems like she's glaring directly at you. And if your hair suddenly burst into flames, it wouldn't be surprising.
When Lithics formed, Hornor wasn't aware of what she was doing, and didn't appreciate the suggestion from certain local writers that she was aspiring to go all Carrie on the audience's ass. But she's since embraced it, not as a performative affectation, but as a way to center herself.
"The first time people started saying I had a 'death stare' was at PDX Pop Now," Hornor says. "That was such a nerve-wracking show, because we'd never played for a crowd that large before. I remember just staring at the opposite stage and what they were doing over there, when they were setting up. And it helped me a lot."
Hornor may not be trying to freak anyone out, but make no mistake: The music of Lithics isn't designed for comfort. And that is precisely what makes them the best band for this particular moment. Judging by the past few Best New Band winners, the prevailing sound of Portland has been drifting in a smoother, more emotional, less aggressive direction. Even Divers, the last "punk" band to top this list, are less interested in confrontation than bleeding-heart catharsis. With Lithics, there's also plenty of bloodletting going on, but it's more of the "shuffling barefoot across broken glass" variety. Shrill, dissonant guitars jab at bass-propelled rhythms like aggravated wasps, while Hornor recites her abstract lyrics like she's casting a spell rather than singing. You can dance to it, sure, but that just makes it harder to turn away from. And the more you listen, the deeper those shards of fractured noise dig into your skin.
Call it "harsh," or even "irritating." But in a city whose weird edges are being rapidly sanded down to make room for more luxury apartments, that kind of systemic shock might be exactly what Portland needs right now.
"'Harsh' is a compliment," Hornor says. "It is sort of what we're going for."
If that makes the members of Lithics seem like a deadly serious bunch, the truth is a lot geekier. Gathered around a table at Holman's after rehearsal, the band members reveal themselves for what they really are—four music nuts with obscure taste who enjoy each other's company. Hornor, bassist Bob Desaulniers, drummer Wiley Hickson and guitarist Mason Crumley all moved to Portland within the past decade and met while playing in other bands whose names you'd know only if you're truly in the know, or hung out at the Know a lot. They formed Lithics three years ago because, when you're hanging out all the time and already in, like, a dozen bands, what's one more?
As friends—and, in the case of Hornor and Desaulniers, a couple—who spent a lot of time together previously talking about records, there wasn't a lot of discussion needed to figure out what they wanted to sound like. Everyone knew the reference points: the primal discordance of the '70s' No Wave scene; the uneasy funk of bands like Bush Tetras and Pylon; the mangled compositional approach of Captain Beefheart. As often happens, Hornor stepped up to sing because no one else would. She also insisted on playing guitar, an instrument she abandoned as a kid in favor of drums but picked back up after moving to Portland from Phoenix.
"I went around the whole 'learning guitar' thing," she says. "I had my first guitar in seventh grade, and I took lessons. I stood in the mirror with it a lot, but I didn't practice, and I couldn't make sense of the thing at all. I got drums, and that was it from there. But when I moved here, I got a guitar—it's still the guitar I have and play with—and I just sort of messed around, and used my sensibility to write and play by ear."
While the band didn't talk much about its direction, it didn't take long for one to take shape. With Hornor relying on instincts more than chops, Desaulniers' bass emerged as the melodic focus, laying the foundation for Hornor and Crumley to scrape and needle against. Over time, Desaulniers and Hickson developed into a remarkably formidable rhythm section, herking and jerking like a warped R&B combo. Eventually, the group honed its formula, releasing one full-length while throwing out a whole other album's worth of songs for not quite fitting the mold.
"We have a pretty clear idea of what the aesthetic is," Desaulniers says. "When it's something a little too much one way or another, we can tell."
And so far, the response has surprised everyone. Without much of a concerted push, or any sort of online presence beyond a Bandcamp page, booking requests have poured in from across the country and even Europe; the band just bought a van to facilitate more touring. It's not just fellow obscurantists embracing them, either. At the aforementioned PDX Pop Now gig last summer, Lithics took the stage midafternoon, in front of an audience not necessarily predisposed to digging Beefheart-inspired art punk. Instead of sending people running, the set ended up being a "stand up and take notice" moment for the Portland music scene.
Maybe Hornor's icy glare succeeded in putting the crowd under a collective trance. Or maybe it was because, in a world that's gone totally crazy, a band like Lithics starts to make a lot more sense.
"I still think we're kind of writing pop songs," Desaulniers says. "I'd rather be a kind of harsh pop band than trying to be some badass punk band and not really succeeding at that."
NEXT GIG: April 28 at Reed College's Renn Fayre.