Scream From New York, NY

Somewhere between the release of Meet Me in the Bathroom (the book) and Meet Me in the Bathroom (the documentary), New York’s early-aughts rock revival entered the realm of classic rock. The Strokes are fêted with vinyl box sets and a decades-too-late Grammy. Interpol are touring behind the 20th anniversary of Antics. LCD Soundsystem are in their residency era, like an Eagles alternative for people who tried Four Loko twice. And perennial underdogs the Walkmen have shape-shifted into reunion darlings.

It’s all romance and mythology now. Those bands’ classic albums are as old now as Fear of Music and Parallel Lines were in 2001. Now the city’s been reborn after another world-shifting tragedy, but—amid exorbitant rents and the displacement of the creative underclass—it’s hard to imagine a new crop of bands reinvigorating the rock scene.

Enter Been Stellar, an NYU-formed quintet who’ve become a ubiquitous and ambitious presence in the downtown music scene. “All of those bands—the Strokes, the Walkmen, Interpol—were a galvanizing thing for us,” guitarist Skyler Knapp recently told an interviewer. Been Stellar’s career has accelerated with similar speed. Before releasing an album, they toured with the 1975 and opened for Interpol. When I saw the group at Mercury Lounge last year, they played with a bombast and gusto that signaled they were destined for bigger venues.

They may wince at being added to playlists with names like “Meet Me in the Bathroom Take 2” and grumble about Strokes comparisons, but can you blame depressed millennials for wanting to believe in the myth of rock renewal? Been Stellar may be victims of projection, but rarely has a young, hungry New York band made being a young, hungry New York band so central to their identity. On an early cut called “Manhattan Youth,” they pondered the NYC childhoods these transplants never had. Now they take inspiration from the wordless screams and chaotic sounds that define daily life in New York and title their debut album Scream From New York, NY.

In the urgent, combustible opener, “Start Again,” singer Sam Slocum wanders First Avenue, trading words with a well-dressed alcoholic, before yowling a climactic refrain of “New York wasted/Start again, start again!” It’s a thrilling statement of intent. The band’s strongest songs are often rooted in the city’s peculiar landmarks. Across its formidable six minutes, “I Have the Answer” marshals waves of shoegaze sludge as Slocum describes an epiphany at the American Museum of Natural History’s whale exhibit. (Noah Baumbach, eat your heart out.) The rousing title track summons an image of the East Village’s Middle Church burning in a 2020 fire as Slocum transforms a hokey Reagan slogan (“Morning in America”) into a refrain laced with noise and dread.

Funny thing is, Been Stellar don’t sound too much like the Strokes. Slocum’s throaty growl sounds a bit like Julian Casablancas, but he also sounds like a young Johnny Rzeznik or Joseph D’Agostino. He sings with earnest emotion, not disaffected cool, and injects each chorus with breathless urgency, even when it’s hard to tell what he’s so worked up about (“Passing Judgment”). After the roiling punk of the opening numbers the album’s tempos slow, and brooding standouts like “Pumpkin” and “Takedown” recall the grandiose angst and soaring melodicism of the mid-’90s UK wave—early Verve, Bends-era Radiohead. If Been Stellar seem like a nostalgia magnet, they can’t help but summon top-shelf influences.

Across these 10 tracks, Been Stellar make a claim as one of New York’s most promising bands, but they don’t always land on a clear identity of their own. “Can’t Look Away” summons the grit and swagger of their heaviest tunes, but much of the record’s latter half blends together in an indistinct mid-tempo haze. They lack the spiky eccentricity or creativity of rising NYC peers like Godcaster or Water From Your Eyes, and some of their songs (“Sweet,” “All in One”) carry a vague, imitative quality. No matter what, there’s an earnestness that belies the jokey, tossed-off band name.

Still, Scream From New York, NY harnesses the group’s keening intensity and taps into a vivid sense of place. They’re not the first songwriters to draw inspiration from the chaotic thrum of New York City, but they bring this literary tradition into a troubled new era. On the title track, Slocum sketches a compelling snapshot of a city coming unglued. That the song’s grim imagery—black smoke, people coughing through masks—evokes several very different real-life events only underlines how many crises of apocalyptic proportions New York has endured this century. To live here is to watch the city swing between collapse and rebirth and back again. Been Stellar may not usher in a full-scale rock revival, but at least they’re making the bad times sound good.