As long as there's Guitar Player magazine, and as long as male musicians labor under the illusion that their technical flash will someday attract women, there will be progressive rock: odd time-signatures, intricate musical interplay, screaming guitars, busy drums and bass, multiple breakdowns and high, sometimes operatic vocals. Rainstation Zero, a group that's emerged in the local scene over the past year, certainly dips into many of those stylistic elements.
But when the singer belts out "Rush hour traffic in my head sometimes / I could really keep you up all night / Gotta free my inner city mind," it has an unexpectedly fresh tonality, thanks to the band's vocalist, Bethany Berkstresser.
Berkstresser's dynamic range and respectable amount of grit and gravel suits the band's hard-rock palette; in a genre dominated by dudely musicians and dudely fans, it's a difference that immediately sets them apart for the better. She's also the band's lyricist, drawing on her background in English -- she attended Pitt as an undergrad in poetry and psychology, and recently completed a secondary-ed graduate degree there as well. Which probably doesn't hurt. "You can take it seriously, or you can just write stuff that doesn't mean anything," she says. "But with the poetry backing, I take it pretty seriously, I guess.
"I was just playing open mics around the city while I was looking for a band, and came across these guys on the MySpace classifieds," she says. "My old band [in college] got me really interested in progressive stuff. But I also like punk a lot, so I was torn." She cites Mars Volta and Coheed & Cambria as influences, but also Blind Melon and Fiona Apple.
The rest of the group has a little more history together: Guitarist Anthony "Ant" Morelli Jr. and bassist Greg Damjanovic are old friends from their days at Point Park University; Damjanovic and drummer Shawn Dalverny had played together in another, more casual, group until last summer. The three began jamming together last fall, coming up with parts for songs. But no vocals. And no lyrics. That's about when Berkstresser answered the ad.
"We said, 'This is what we have -- can you put lyrics to it?'" says Damjanovic. "I'd never worked with a female-fronted band," he says, but as a longtime fan of The Sugarcubes, Sinead O'Connor and Berlin (whom the band occasionally covers), he was enthusiastic about this direction for the group. "It's proggy, but it still has the hard-rock sound of it," says Berkstresser, "and I think [Ant] liked the idea of contrasting that with a female voice that has more beauty in it."
Then there's the fifth member of the band -- the home studio. The band's self-titled album, being released Fri., Dec. 14, was recorded at Morelli's home in Mount Washington, allowing ample time for writing, recording and arranging. Over weekends and stolen evenings here and there, they figured out what worked and what didn't, says Damjanovic. "And Ant was always getting new equipment, new mics -- always upgrading."
The results are quite good: a full, loud sound, without the over-processing that, ironically, often makes aggressive music sound so sterile. You can tell there's a real human playing real drums in a real room. Ditto for the guitar, the bass and the vocals. And when these sonic aspects jell with a solid groove, especially on the opener "A Fond Dream," the band packs a helluva punch.
There are some missteps, sure: "Cute Catastrophe" tries to be light and funky, and ends up sounding like an average jammy college band. A certain amount of indulgence, after all, is a time-honored part of playing in a prog band.
But on "Tonto the Irishman," a metallic strut collides with a hooky, Celtic-tinged chorus and lyrics that combine larger themes and local imagery, detailing a "search for solace in the veins of East Carson Street." It's loaded with the band's unique personality, and it rocks in a fresh and unexpected way.
Not a bad start at all for a band that officially got together last December, and played its first show in March. "It's definitely not just a hobby band for us," says Berkstresser; the band's already planning a second record. "I guess we were just really committed, and happened to all have the same level of commitment."
Rainstation Zero CD Release with Blindsider and The Melissa Quinn Band. 10 p.m. Fri. Dec. 14. 31st Street Pub, 3101 Penn Ave., Strip District. $5. 412-391-8334 or www.31stpub.com