MusicMusic Features

Subvertigo Combines Moody Shoegaze and Melodic Metal

Heavy-gaze Charlotte band defines their identity

Subvertigo (from left): Ricky Rodriguez-Cue, Delcan O’Dell, Stephen Vorne and Ethan Saunders (Photo by Effie Horvath)

A glimmering curtain of chiming guitars glides in like sudden rain. As sepulchral bass notes toll from deep within the earth, guitarist, lead singer and songwriter Stephen Vorne launches into an anxious vocal: “The world’s moved on without us/ but can you keep yourself?/ This house of cards you stand on/ Will plunge in one small breath…

The opening strains of “Frail” signposts Charlotte four-piece Subvertigo as a moody shoegaze outfit cast in the image Disintegration-era The Cure. But first impressions can deceive. 

Turning deftly on a dime, “Frail” tumbles into heavy metal’s sharp grinding gears. Vorne responds with a guttural roar.

Fall off everything you stood upon/ Off everything you’ve torn apart/ Another gold-plated lie…

It’s a disorienting moment. At first, “Frail” harkens back to the shimmering cadences of Cocteau Twins. Then, with a sudden whiplash turn, it embraces the bludgeoning power of Black Sabbath.

“Frail” is about the morality police, and [people] having a fragile worldview,” Vorne says via phone from the house he shares with two of his bandmates. “It’s about moral grandstanding and the hypocrisy of people who do that sort of thing.”  

The swirling, shape-shifting composition positions the listener as off balance as the moral arbiters it targets. Like most good art, “Frail” is protean enough to apply to several scenarios, but it particularly serves as a fitting epitaph for Moms for Liberty, the faux grassroots gang of bullies who failed their own purity test when a seamy sex scandal went public.

It’s also a Subvertigo fan favorite. When the band plays the tune live, people love to sing along with the chorus, Vorne says, but there’s one small hiccup.

“People get the lyrics to that one wrong,” says the band’s bassist Ethan Saunders.

“Yes,” Vorne says. “People think I’m saying ‘fuck’ but I’m saying ‘fall.’ I don’t have the heart to tell them because they’re having so much fun.”

“Fun” is a strange yet fitting word to apply Subvertigo’s moody alt-rock with sharp metallic edges. The band plays a set of new and old songs at Snug Harbor on May 21. Singing along, with either correct or incorrect lyrics, is encouraged.

The intersection of music and bands

The four members of Subvertigo are friends, housemates and bandmates. Following each musician’s path to the band provides a glimpse into how musicians connect, collaborate and cross-pollinate in Charlotte’s music scene.  It’s like watching the city’s musical synapses firing.

Growing up in Mooresville, Vorne was exposed to punk, metal and alternative rock via skateboarding videos. When his ambition of becoming a skater was sidelined by a knee injury at age 12, he turned his attention to music.

a black and white photo of subvertigo playing a show in Charlotte, NC
Subvertigo (Photo by Madison Cox)

While attending the Berklee College of Music in Boston in 2015, Vorne played in hardcore outfit Inconvenience Store and pop-punk band Sounds & Scenarios. Vorne dropped out from Berklee in 2017 and returned to Charlotte.

“I figured a music degree is not a good thing to go into debt for,” Vorne says.

Guitarist Declan O’Dell grew up in California but moved to Charlotte when he was 14. While attending the UNC Charlotte, he befriended future Subvertigo drummer Ricky Rodriguez-Cue, who grew up playing music but had never been in a band.

Here is where musical tributaries and band bloodlines get complicated. Both O’Dell and Rodriguez-Cue formed indie psych-rock band Wet Basement Project. The dankly-named project, which couples improvisation with the sashaying kick of Southern ’80s alternative groups like Love Tractor, is currently on semi-hiatus, primarily because some band members play in other bands, including Charlotte alt-roots rockers Warp Street. 

“I like to think [Wet Basement Project] is ongoing,” O’Dell says. “But we haven’t played in a hot minute.”

In the meantime, Both O’Dell and Rodriguez-Cue moved into a house in the University City area where they composed and played music with their bedroom project Tiger Babies.

Bassist Saunders was also a bedroom musician, making beats that he rapped over while playing guitar.

In the summer of 2023, Vorne and Saunders also moved into the University house. Meanwhile, Rodriguez-Cue, who with O’Dell had graduated from UNC Charlotte, moved to Chapel Hill to continue his education. 

“That’s when all the music making started,” Rodriguez-Cue says. 

It actually started earlier, in the spring of 2022, when Vorne, O’Dell and Rodriguez-Cue met at Snug Harbor. Vorne pitched the concept of Subvertigo to the others, and they were intrigued. Meanwhile, Vorne had also started playing in Queen City alternative metal band Cramped Casket. 

Vorne, O’Dell, Rodriguez-Cue and Saunders also indulge their lighter side with Rocks for Lizards, an alt-pop-rock combo fronted by singer-lyricist Rayne Antrim (who is also Queen City Nerve’s digital manager).

a portrait of Subvertigo playing live music
Subvertigo (Photo by Effie Horvath)

From all this creative cross-pollination and music making with multiple bands, Subvertigo emerged. Vorne, O’Dell and Rodriguez-Cue began playing together every week, nurturing the chemistry that turned Subvertigo into a serious enterprise. 

Saunders came into the fold in August and the band played it’s first show at a Halloween house party in Asheville in 2022.

Establishing Subvertigo

In July 2023, Vertigo showcased its brand of shoegaze/hardcore/metal on the debut five-track EP Define Yourself, engineered and produced by Atticus Lane.

Fittingly, the EP opens with the band’s oldest track, “1258,” written by Vorne four years before he met his bandmates. Here, a haunted music box melody harkens back to the Factory Records roster — particularly Joy Division — before exploding into Rodriguez-Cue’s rampaging drums, Saunders’ freight train bass and O’Dell’s and Vorne’s slurred legato guitar runs, while Vorne’s vocal leaps from a rumination to a roar. He’s shouting into the void.

Pissed it all away, laying still years more/ forgot what’s outside, traded for basement floors/ A bedroom rotting, lungs filled with mold/ Smoke permeating this hazy light…

Vorne says “1258” is the address of a crappy apartment where he lived in Boston.

“It’s about of living in that space, being poor and having love life and living issues,” Vorne says. 

The arrangement and the band’s inspired playing imbue the song with an austere beauty and sprightly sense of exploration. That same balance permeates all of Subvertigo’s oeuvre, and Vorne promises that more similarly challenging and engaging music will be released before the end of the year.

“I want it to … have people think about things,” Vorne says. “If they’re paying attention to the lyrics, maybe [they’ll] think about different perspectives, and if they’re listening to the music, then [they’ll] just rage along with it.”

Rodriguez-Cue hopes that people who see Subvertigo play can also be inspired to make their own music. 

Saunders says Subvertigo’s music touches a nerve with listeners because it delves into the darker aspects of being human. As a consequence, playing this moody music has exposed him to a growing, caring community. 

“I’ve met so many cool people from playing shows,” Saunders says. “I’ve met all these people who have become my best friends in such a short time.”

That is the dichotomy that defines Subvertigo. Amid resonating stinging guitars, crawling bass and drums that suggest something clattering in the woodwork, there is the joy of discovery. Threading through trenchant lyrics that grapple with the unbridgeable gulf between people, Subvertigo counter-intuitively connects people by letting them know they’re not alone. 

Subvertigo’s very existence is a celebration of the members’ friendship, O’Dell says. In the company of fellow musicians, a sympathetic community and friends, even raging at the dying light is fun.

SUPPORT OUR WORK: Get better connected and become a member of Queen City Nerve to support local journalism for as little as $5 per month. Our community journalism helps inform you through a range of diverse voices.

Related Articles

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *