Sensory Overload: Pharoahs carry the torch for ’90s indie rock

By Columbus Alive
From the May 2, 2013 edition

Going to see an anonymous local band in a tiny room on a school night is, more often than not, an intimate pursuit. Still, it was a little jarring to be the only person in the room when the first act started Sunday at Tree Bar, like watching strangers making out or making dinner.

That band was Pharoahs, whose questionable spelling we will forgive here, if only to differentiate from the campus-area budget pizza joint Pharaoh’s. These guys don’t serve pizza, but they do deal in comfort food, albeit comfort food delivered with pent-up anxiety at breakneck speed.

Had I listened to the album they posted to Bandcamp about a year ago, I might have expected electronics-infused whiny-melodic indie pop along the lines of The Unicorns or Matt and Kim. But I couldn’t find Pharoahs the band online due to Pharaoh’s the pizza place, so I went in blind.

From the first ringing power chord — which quickly attracted a dozen or so onlookers from the other rooms, lest you worry that Pharoahs had to suffer the awkward indignity of a one-man audience — this power trio proved itself far more conventional, and for the better. The album feels pinched and frail. The show was bracing and immediate. Some bands benefit from veering from rock ’n’ roll’s most basic forms into hybrid sounds, but this one seems to have benefitted from peeling back to the essentials.

You could call Pharoahs minimal in terms of their setup (one distortion pedal, one tom, one cymbal, etc.) or their songwriting (no frills), but their sound is anything but. They hurled big, bold, guitar-driven indie rock at us, weaned on Weezer and Pavement but blasted at Superchunk speed. Even the song that began as a casual stroll eventually turned into a race.

Brian Baker’s vocals remain an enigma, partially because they were mixed so low to avoid unpleasant feedback. Stick-splitting drummer Chris Mengerink’s backing harmonies were actually louder, and they acquitted him well. As for singer-guitarist Baker, he proved his own melodic gifting more through free-flowing Pixies lead lines.

There have been a million bands like this since the dawn of the ’90s, and a rock critic has probably praised all of them, but we’re still right after all these years.