"Kids are gonna play music whether you encourage it or not," says Danny Bland, production manager for EMP's annual Sound Off! competition. "It's nice to support them and also to have a look at what's happening--who is playing living-room parties and church basements--because you never know what kind of talent is boiling down there."

To help bring that talent from the basement to the big time (well, okay, maybe medium-sized time), EMP hosts Sound Off!, its month-long battle of the bands showcasing some of the city's finest young musicians. It's now time for the fourth annual installment of the competition, so every Saturday night in February, three of the nine S.O. finalists will play for a panel of judges comprising members of the local music community. After each show, one winning act will advance to February 26's final round.

"Sound Off! is an opportunity for bands to play in front of a large all-ages audience in a premier event setting with an amazing sound system," explains Bland. "It's an experience that might otherwise be a long ways off for upcoming bands like these."

Not only is the show itself a fantastic experience, but some of Sound Off!'s previous finalists have made quite a name for themselves since being featured in the competition. The alumni list includes Schoolyard Heroes, Idiot Pilot, Mon Frere, and the Hollowpoints.

This year's nine finalists are Handshakes, the Neons, Paper or Plastic, Aluzjun, the Last Romance, Nameless Danger, Gruff Mummies, the Paramours, and Squid vs. Shark.

It wasn't an easy task to whittle the huge pool of more than 100 entries down to 9, says Bland. "We invite our coworkers and some people from the outside to sit around and listen to a song or two off of each entry, filing them into a box of 'nos' and a box of 'maybes.' We meet, again and again, until we have our final list."

They also try to steer clear from filling the bill with too many similar-sounding acts.

"We try to have the competition be as diverse as possible," states Bland. "Some years there are definitely trends, but this year it's really diverse; there really isn't one musical style or trend that stands out. It's quite a variety."

The first installment of this month's Sound Off! happens at the EMP on Saturday, February 5, and will feature Handshakes, the Neons, and Paper or Plastic. Exact set times for the bands won't be announced until that night, however, so you're gonna wanna be prompt. (The show starts at 8 pm and costs $5 for EMP members, $7 for students and teachers, and $10 for the rest of ya.) Good luck to all. MEGAN SELING

megan@thestranger.com

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