High-school music projects don’t often outlive freshman year of college. Still rocking after two decades together, Olympus Mons has managed to break the mold. The four-piece celebrated its 20-year anniversary last month and recently released another album.
Audiences will get a live taste of the new album No Lights Left but the Sun when Olympus Mons performs it on Fri., Dec. 16 at Brillobox. Dropped on Dec. 13, No Lights Left but the Sun marks the third album from the Pittsburgh-born and raised band, and its first release in 10 years.
For a band that has been around as long as Olympus Mons, three albums may seem like an underachievement. Or maybe it’s the secret to their staying together this long.
“I don’t think we ever had grand aspirations of ‘make it or break it,’” says bassist Mike Bechtold, who plays in the band with his twin brother, keyboardist Brian. “It was more just, we’re enjoying what we’re doing and the experiences we’re getting with it. Just good friends getting together, making some music, sometimes playing it out.”
The Bechtolds, along with drummer Kurt Threlfall and singer Mike Ummer, launched the band in high school over a shared love of music creation. Their past two albums, Olympus Mons in 2008 and The Mink Trapper’s Daughter in 2012, established their space rock, shoegaze-inspired sound.
The new album was conceived over three wintry days in November 2019 at an Airbnb on Somerset County’s Indian Lake. The setting’s icy, gloomy atmosphere seeped into their recording process, which took place before the start of the pandemic.
“I’d say over three quarters of the album is kind of melancholic,” says Threlfall. “It kind of seemed to foretell what was coming, not just for us, but the whole world.”
No Lights Left but the Sun builds off the band’s backlog of noisy songs driven by The Cure-style guitar melodies into a more mature songwriting perspective. Over the album’s seven tracks, Ummer drones and wails over steady bass lines. Think U2 arena rock but for a dimly lit dive bar.
The press release for the new album describes Olympus Mons as “rather reclusive.” In person, Pittsburgh City Paper finds them less withdrawn than expected, as they share stories about college recording sessions fueled by Night Lite beer, and hanging show flyers on light posts in the freezing cold.
The Pittsburgh music scene looks a lot different than when they first started, and they’ll be the first to admit that they’re behind the times when it comes to social media (they only recently launched their Twitter). But since high school, their focus has been on simply playing good music.
“I think we’ve been pretty consistent,” says Threlfall. “I don’t think we could do this with anyone else. It’s either the four of us or nothing.”
The band got its start kicking it at clubs and bars in the South Side, shaking hands with promoters and getting in at small local venues while they were still 18 and 19 years old. Most of the places where they played — Howlers, 31st Street Pub, The Rex Theater, Z Lounge — have gone belly up as a new wave of Pittsburgh venues takes their place.
“People still remember those days. Everything used to be word of mouth,” says Threlfall. “I’m kind of struggling to adapt to the new things. Everything seems to be much more social-media heavy.”
Even though the music scene has changed, the band’s chemistry remains the same.
“We all learned to play together,” says Bechtold. “We’ve had people come over and jam, but it never seems to quite fit chemistry-wise. It doesn’t really feel the same.”
The new album starts with “Automate,” a soaring intro track underscored by Threlfall’s pounding drums. Ummer’s vocals, initially soft-spoken, rise up and over the song by the end chorus, reverbing in swirling guitar trails.
The next track, “The Faintest Sounds,” erupts into an attention-grabbing guitar melody before sliding into the vocals. “If I was the only one/On the bottom of the moon,” sings Ummer. The song picks up with a far-away-sounding wail on the chorus: “The faintest sounds/They shake the ground” serves as an apt metaphor for devastating everyday emotions and a neat summation of the band’s deceptively layered melodies.
Despite Olympus Mons’ gloomy aesthetic and heavy sound, the album closes with two future-looking tracks, the bright and jangly “Wishing You Well” and the contemplative “A Celebrated Triumph.” Backed by a quick keyboard riff and underlined by Threlfall’s steady drumbeat on the tried-and-true Pearl drum kit he’s been using since ninth grade, “A Celebrated Triumph” ponders conclusions and hard-earned moments of rest with “There’s not lights left but the sun/This is my salutation/So draw the curtain for the ovation.”
Is this the last bow for the 20-year-old band? Little chance. As long as it remains fun, making music together won’t stop for a long time, Bechtold says.
“It’s an odd thing — getting together with your friends, just being a part of something else. Being a part of a team almost,” Bechtold says. “For us, it’s never been out forcing anything. We’re looking forward to just keeping it going.”
Olympus Mons with Shade and DJ Mike Cunningham. 9 p.m. Fri., Dec. 16. Brillobox. 4104 Penn Ave., Bloomfield. $10. brilloboxpgh.com