Pittsburgh's Eyewash, Spiral, and Tough Cuffs blend shoegaze, grunge, and hardcore on new records | Pittsburgh City Paper

Grunge? Hardcore? Shoegaze? These up-and-coming Pittsburgh acts catch ’em all

click to enlarge Grunge? Hardcore? Shoegaze? These up-and-coming Pittsburgh acts catch ’em all
Photo: Ethan Harkness
One of the most definitive rock music developments of the 2020s thus far has been the near-total border collapse between hardcore, grunge, and shoegaze.

The post-lockdown hardcore boom has catapulted underground acts including Turnstile and Knocked Loose into 4,000-cap venues and spurred an international groundswell of DIY-level bands and thriving local scenes in cities like Pittsburgh. Simultaneously, the long-niche shoegaze genre has experienced a remarkable explosion in popularity among Gen-Z listeners, who’ve made shoegaze OGs Slowdive, ’gazey alt-metal greats Deftones, and a slew of younger acts the soundtrack of TikTok. On the same app, 2010s-era grunge torchbearers like the Stone Temple Pilots-y Superheaven and the U.K. flannel-donners Basement (think Oasis via Sunny Day Real Estate) have recently had songs go viral.

None of these movements are happening independently of one another. While groups like the post-hardcore Quicksand, shoegazey Swervedriver, and Top 40 nu-metallers Linkin Park previously existed in separate artistic worlds, all of those sounds are colliding in the 2020s. The bands emerging from that genre-agnostic landscape — Fleshwater, Narrow Head, and Soul Blind, to name a few national acts — are blurring hardcore, metal, and alt-rock into a new idiom that's been coined “nu-gaze,” “grunge-gaze,” or just plain “hardcore-adjacent” music, depending on who you ask.

Call it what you want, but what matters is that in 2024, that sound — or more specifically, that cluster of micro-sounds with a shared creative ethos — has landed in Pittsburgh. Three local acts in particular, screamo-and-synth-pop-inflected grunge-gazers Eyewash, reverb-addled hardcore trio Spiral, and the Mudhoney-but-moshy outfit Tough Cuffs, have released music this year that feels tapped into the same national zeitgeist — even if their members don’t exactly see themselves as kindred spirits.

“Every band from the ‘Seattle grunge scene’ says they were doing things separate from each other,” Eyewash drummer Jack Wells tells City Paper. “And the more music we play, the more I realize that those bands were telling the truth. Let the music critic do the historicizing process and decide what was and wasn’t a scene.”

OK, bet: This is absolutely a scene. Spiral, Eyewash, and Tough Cuffs all played together at the Smiling Moose last month, where the latter band were co-celebrating their EP release with Pittsburgh hardcore stompers Princess. In the one month prior, Spiral and Eyewash gigged together twice, including a show opening for Soul Blind, the aforementioned upstate New Yorkers bringing the grunge-core sound across the country.

Spiral and Tough Cuffs presently have moshier bodies of work than Eyewash, who only brought explicit hardcore influence into their sound with the bone-snapping April single, “Bound.” However, Eyewash are opening for NYHC vets Gorilla Biscuits at Preserving Underground next month, further entrenching themselves in the Pittsburgh hardcore scene, as opposed to the local shoegaze habitat.

That's partially because the 412 doesn’t really have one of the latter right now, at least not to the degree that Pittsburgh currently has two (possibly three, if we’re getting really granular) concurrent hardcore scenes. Feeble Little Horse went from Oakland basements to Coachella stages in less than two years, and they took an 11-month hiatus in the middle of that period, effectively nixing the potential for a scene of imitators to be ushered in under their wing. Other local ’gazers like Gaadge and Blinder, who both play more straightforward shoegaze than Feeble Little Horse, have put out solid records within the last year, but neither band feel like they're echoing back the sound of any national trends within the genre.

In fairness, Eyewash aren’t either, and tagging them a “shoegaze” band doesn’t even feel accurate. The five-piece (including one, formerly two, members of the late Pittsburgh screamo act Shin Guard) formed early on in the pandemic and released their self-titled debut EP last March. Across eyewash’s five cuts, chilly synths and ghastly reverb swells waft atop the stoic drum thwacks and chugging industrial-metal guitars, while co-vocalists Alex Walsh and Rachel Hines allow their mournful coos to envelope the in-between. “Spinning” and “Kaleidoscope” are deliriously hooky and alluringly atmospheric synth-pop standouts, but the heavy drums and metallurgic guitars insinuate that Eyewash are holding back a ferocious side.

They let that beast out on “Bound,” an alternately bouncing, plodding, and tower-crumbling banger that sounds like post-metal/shoegaze ear-destroyers Holy Fawn one minute and grunge-gaze stewards Fleshwater the next. Wells says that Eyewash are “just writing songs based on what feels right,” so it’s unclear whether their next release will sound exactly like “Bound.”

In addition to art-pop mysteriosos Dean Blunt and Jai Paul, one of Eyewash’s biggest influences is Coaltar of the Deepers, the eclectic Japanese band whose prolific body of work flits between noisy shoegaze, gnashing metal, and maudlin synth-pop. If Eyewash are committed to being even half as genre-leaping as their heroes, then predicting where they’ll end up next isn’t worth the effort. But for now, grunge-gaze it is.

click to enlarge Grunge? Hardcore? Shoegaze? These up-and-coming Pittsburgh acts catch ’em all
Photo: Abigail McNatt
Eyewash live at Preserving Underground in New Kensington, Pa.
Spiral and Tough Cuffs are more overtly hitched to that sound. The former sound like an exact combination of grunge revivalists Superheaven and hardcore noise-makers GEL — with a hearty sprinkling of Deftones-y alt-metal for extra flavor.

Spiral formed in 2023 and just dropped their four-song debut last month. Opener “Twisted By Design” comes crashing out the gate with hardcore power chords that clobber as much as they clang. The riffs themselves are crudely menacing, but the guitar is awash in bleary-eyed chorus and reverb effects, making the distorted resonance of each stroke spill over from one measure to the next, creating a sort of poor-man’s shoegaze flood. Devin Gainar’s vocals are gravelly and spiteful, relaxing into a nasally yawp during the chorus and then tensing into a fiery bark when the hardcore breakdown arrives.

On the even heavier “Postal,” Gainar’s shouts come unhinged from the straight punk rhythm and briefly adopt a nu-metal swing, particularly when Gainar yowl-raps before the mosh chug like his foot’s caught in a beartrap. The breakdown of “Postal” in particular sounds like 10 glass vases shattering in rapid succession. The shardy guitar effects give the sledgehammering riff an inorganic intensity that’s a clear break from ’90s sensibilities.

Meanwhile, “Sunshine” sounds like Failure crossed with Linkin Park (who they name as an influence), and the EP’s strongest track on a sheer songwriting level, “Empty Skin,” is a defeated power-ballad that wouldn’t sound out of place on Eighteen Visions’ Obsession. Spiral guitarist John Cantwell mentions that the Texas alt-metallers Bleed (featuring members of Narrow Head) are their single biggest inspiration. Both bands are finding common ground in the liminal spaces between alt-metal, post-hardcore, and grunge, with Spiral having the more purebred hardcore influence of the two.

click to enlarge Grunge? Hardcore? Shoegaze? These up-and-coming Pittsburgh acts catch ’em all
Photo courtesy of Spiral
Pittsburgh "dreamy hardcore" band Spiral
In that sense, Spiral are the perfect midpoint between Eyewash and Princess, who recently invited Cantwell onstage for a riotous guest spot during a mosh-filled Mr. Roboto show. Princess don’t have any grunge or ’gaze in their sound, but they do have a couple breakdowns with a nu-metal bounce in their repertoire. And like Spiral, one of their biggest influences is the New Jersey hardcore slashers GEL, who throw a disorienting smear of reverb on their singer’s voice to give it a cave-echo resonance. Spiral instead keep the effect limited mostly to their guitars, but they share Princess’s — and by extension, much of modern-day hardcore’s — curiosity with spray-painting alt-rock colors over hardcore canvasses that are traditionally kept black-and-white.

“We were going to see groups like Tough Cuffs, Princess, and Eyewash play before we formed our band,” Cantwell says of Spiral’s relation to their scene-mates. “Now that we are playing shows ourselves, we absolutely feel a kinship. We consider all of them to be friends and inspirations. We share similar influences, and feel as a result that our music is appealing to similar audiences.”

Tough Cuffs didn’t get back to City Paper for comment, so we don’t know their influences for sure, but we can certainly infer who some of their muses are. The band’s 2021 and 2022 releases sound like beer-battered punk ’n roll, and therefore feel like proto versions of the band they grew into on last year’s Bliss Point and this year’s even better All Dogs Go to Heaven EP. On the new set of tunes in particular, Tough Cuffs clomp and thrash their way through beefy grunge rippers that routinely flare up into gnashing hardcore passages with strained growls and bludgeoning grooves. The walloping conclusion to “Feel” has that Deftones-y, Quicksand-y pogo that Soul Blind and Bleed are so fond of, while “One Track Mind” is just a sludgy hardcore ripper.

Their song “Growing Pains” is far catchier, boasting a raggedy, angsty punk chorus and churning guitars that would fit snugly on a playlist with Title Fight’s “Secret Society.” Especially during that song’s frothy verse riffs, Tough Cuffs are one reverb pedal away from emanating Dinosaur Jr.-esque shoegaze squalls. Instead, their blue-flame feedback gives the songs a noise-rock burn, tipping Tough Cuffs toward a Pittsburgh act like the fractious guitar-squealers Gundy, but retaining enough post-grunge melody in their choruses to ensure Touch and Go Records won’t come knocking.

Grunge-core, grunge-gaze, post-post-hardcore — there really isn't a neat descriptor that applies to Tough Cuffs, Eyewash and Spiral. That's because all three bands are making music in an era when genres are borderless and 45 years worth of punk iterations are available for bands like these to mix and match. Like Wells said, if you truly zoom in on the idealized conformity of the early-’90s Seattle grunge scene, then you’ll spot as many differences as there are similarities between the bands. But what was true about that Pacific Northwest coalition remains so today in Pittsburgh: There’s something in that Allegheny water.

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