photo by Annie Noelker
Stems started as a high school project, but they’ve come a long way since band class. In the past year, the group – which members describe as “prog-hop” – has released an EP, two singles, and an album; they’ve been featured by Columbus’ Mouth Mag and The Dispatch; and on March 23rd they dropped their debut album with a show at Kafe Kerouac.
That album, Out of Fear, is a forceful premiere. The twelve songs, which range from a breezy 1:36 to 4:14, are decidedly ambitious in their variance. This is not a one-shot album; rather, Stems has been careful to draw from a wide selection of musical references and tools. Mickey Shuman, the group’s guitarist as well as composer, has managed to build out a full album which weaves a wide net: though tonally coherent, Out of Fear wriggles out from under genre-specific descriptors, shifting triumphantly from song-to-song.
The leading song, “Vices,” bounces between vocalist Kendall Martin’s relentless verses and an addictive, staccato guitar riff. It sets the tone for the whole album: beyond Martin’s lyrical explorations, Out of Fear navigates the relationships between disparate compositional elements. It’s reminiscent of a jazz ensemble – elements converse with each other, building the meaning of the song as they stagger in and out of focus. The additional two musicians in the group, Dante Montoto (bass) and Zach Pennington (drums), round out the quartet, grounding the instrumental conversation in a traditionalist four-piece structure.
Given the technical attention on Out of Fear, an initial instinct might be to question whether the album fits within hip-hop. But I’d argue that hip-hop has always been multiply-modal. The introduction of samples, remixing, verses, and electronic adjustment all speak to the relational quality of hip-hop and the importance of multiple voices to each track. What is remarkable about Stems’ work, then, is not the urge to expand their music but the way that expansion highlights each instrument’s vibrancy. Remarkable, too, is the ease with which Stems shifts beats and time signatures within the album, each song, and even within verses. Stems will shrug off one beat and into another so casually it’s easy to forget they’re trying something new each time.
“Out of Fear,” the album’s namesake and second single, is driven forward by an emotional and wrenchingly paced performance by Martin. “My life don’t mean the same as yours / this is America,” Martin raps, “where they judge you by your skin / and not your character.” It’s not the first stirring moment on the album, but it the careful balance Martin is able to strike between clarity, flow, and felt emotion in his lyrics and vocal performance still gives me pause each time I listen.
Stems’ emergence in Columbus comes as part of a long legacy of both hip-hop and rock in Central Ohio. And though, for many reasons, it is often not easy for youth to thrive in Ohio, it’s exciting to see bands like Stems unabashedly experiment with their releases, and to see them collaborating with other young artists, musicians, and makers.