SUNDAY SPOTLIGHT: HOW CAVE IN BECAME ONE OF THE MOST CREATIVE AND OVERLOOKED BANDS ON THE PLANET
Seminal Boston band Cave In have an intruiging history, one that took them from sweaty basement DYI hardcore shows to spaced-out progressive mettalirock to major-label bidding war and then all the way back, all within the span of a few short years. No heavy band from the Northeastern US seems to be as widely loved and respected yet criminally overlooked as Cave In.
Cave In started out playing a blistering, dense hybrid of hardcore and metal and morphed into progged-out, cerebral space-rock seemingly overnight. The band’s early sound filtered Metallica and Slayer riffs through aggro-calculus-core chugga-chugga akin to Converge and Dillinger Escape Plan, two bands whose histories are closely intertwined with Cave In. But what made the band so interesting was the way they grew over time to weave art-metal experimentation, melody and psychedelia into their otherwise brutal, mind-bending assault. The result was a truly progressive, artistic, brutal and most importantly one-of-a-kind sound that was unmatched during the band’s run and remains astonishing and relevant to this day.
Cave In got its start in the Boston hardcore scene of the mid-late ’90s. The band started as a five-piece with co-founders Stephen Brodksy (guitar) and Jay Frechette (vocals) surrounding themselves with like-minded musicians including Adam McGrath (guitar), Justin Matthes (bass) and John-Robert Conners (drums). After toiling in the underground and recording a few split 7-inches, Hydra Head Records gave the band a shot in 1998, releasing these singles as a collection dubbed Beyond Hypothermia. A succession of bassists and vocalists followed Frechette and Matthes’ departures from the band, unexpectedly forcing Brodsky into lead vocal duties two weeks before the recording of their second album Until Your Heart Stops. Caleb Scofield was tapped for bass and co-vocal duties around this time, cementing the lineup that would bring Cave In to fame.
The constant change over Cave In’s career saw the band letting more of their rock and metal influences show with each release, and the band’s second record Until Your Heart Stops was the first to hint at this progression. Melding Slayer-esque guitar passages with bruising hardcore riffs, Cave In was already forging new ground early in their career. Until Your Heart Stops also introduced an experimental, space-rock element to their music that would later come to define their sound. Songs like “Juggernaut” and “The End of Our Rope Is Noise” introduced swirly, heavily-delayed guitars to Cave In’s repertoire, thrown in amongst the cavalcade of chaos and brutality. And in yet another genre-twisting move and a sign of where the band might be headed, most of the songs on UYHS passed the 3, 4, 5, even 8 minute mark, a rarity in a genre where 30-minute albums with 16 songs are not uncommon. Despite the spattering of other influences, Until Your Heart Stops was through and through a hardcore record at heart, with the other added elements thrown in serving only to add to the frenzy and chaos.
Cave In – “Moral Eclipse” (Until Your Heart Stops)
Cave In – “Juggernaut” (Until Your Heart Stops)
Cave In – “The End Of Our Rope is a Noise” (Until Your Heart Stops)
With Creative Eclipses, a stop-gap EP the band released in 1999, Cave In forged ahead in a completely new direction, dropping the bottom-heavy chug of their past and bringing psychedelic, spaced out metal to the forefront. In the place of hardcore grooves and screaming vocals were heavy progressive rock passages, sung vocals, and spaced-out, ambient guitars. Two ethereal instrumental passages and a minute-and-a-half acoustic track dotted what is essentially a two song EP, one being a cover of Failure’s trademark track “Magnified” perhaps hinting at what the band was after with their new direction.
Cave In – “Luminance” (Creative Eclipses)
Cave In – “Magnified” [Failure cover] (Creative Eclipses)
With their 2000 full-length release Jupiter, Cave In smashed open the doors of not only the many genres they’d experimented with in the past but also of success. Taking the basic blueprint of “Luminance” from Creative Eclipses and one-upping it to the next logical level, Jupiter is an undeniable masterpiece and still stands as Cave In’s creative high-watermark. As Cave In lost their trademark bottom-heavy grooves, screaming vocals and hardcore song framework they also lost a whole lot of fans who decried their jump away from gut-wrenching riffs. But in their place were dazzling, mind-bending swirls of guitars both brutally heavy and gracefully beautiful, undeniable grooves, incredibly inventive drumming, and absolutely unforgettable songs highlighting Brodsky’s newly found voice. If Cave In’s previous sound had been a physical assault, their new sound was a mental assault, challenging both the band and the listener. Above everything it was cerebral, thinking man’s rock music to say the least. To this day, repeated listens of Jupiter (and I’ve listened to it MANY times) yield new layers of sound and sonic complexity; this is the kind of album that lasts for the ages. Brian McTernan’s (Converge, Thrice, Darkest Hour, Piebald) masterful production and razor-sharp mixing play a huge part in the overall listening experience. With its astonishing melody and jarring dissonance, Jupiter was the realization of everything Cave In had done up until that point. I’m not sure it can ever be topped.
Cave In – “Jupiter” (Jupiter)
Cave In – “Big Riff” ( Jupiter)
Cave In – “Brain Candle” ( Jupiter)
Jupiter broke down the doors for new legions of fans, critics, and record labels alike. Convinced the band’s newly tightened sound could affect mainstream appeal, RCA picked them up after much ballyhoo and released the oft-delayed Antenna in 2003 (with the Tides of Tomorrow EP released in the meantime on Hydra Head). Though critics continued to recognize the band’s brilliance, some fans jumped ship due to the (relatively) reigned-in song structures and bigger, slicker production. Even if the band was exposed to new audiences, I’m not entirely sure that the prospect of Cave In on a major label could ever have worked out; the band’s songs are way too involved and complex to appeal to an audience wide enough to make the major label economic model work. Not to mention that the band was never content to stay within any one formula. Still, RCA should be commended for recognizing the band’s talent and thinking outside of the box. With the very-talented Rich Costey (Muse, The Mars Volta, Mastodon) behind the boards, Cave In made another excellent album though it fell short of living up to the hype and sky-high expectations generated by its big brother Jupiter. With a major label calling the shots there wasn’t much room for the band to expand, and though Antenna has some great songs, a good portion of the middle of the album feels like filler. The success of Jupiter set the standards so high that Cave In appeared locked into a certain format that could only keep them content for so long.
Cave In – “Dark Driving” (Tides of Tomorrow EP)
Cave In – “Inspire” (Antenna)
Cave In – “Joy Opposites” (Antenna)
Cave In – “Lost in the Air” (Antenna)
Unfortunately, despite big-league spending and a relentless touring with the likes of the Foo Fighters, Muse, and the resurrected Lollapalooza, Antenna failed to reach both the label’s and band’s expectations. A label-personnel shake-up also contributed to the band falling through the cracks at RCA. RCA finally let them out of their contract in 2005 after a lengthy period of downtime. Frustrated, down-trodden and confused, the band took some time off before re-discovering their love for music by jamming on some of their older material. This inspired the back-to-basics approach of Perfect Pitch Black which former label Hydra Head was more than happy to take on. The album — packaged in a morose black jewel case and accompanied by diatribes written by the band members in the liner notes — addressed the band’s grueling album cycle and eventual frustration with Antenna. The sounds and lyrics are rawer, darker, and simpler, simultaneously harkening back to their earlier material and pushing forward at the same time; Perfect Pitch Black reintroduced screamed vocals and bottom-heavy thud to the repertoire, infusing it into Cave In’s trademark metal/space-rock format. The result is an album that appeals to hardcore and stoner-rock fans alike.
Cave In – “Trepanning” (Perfect Pitch Black)
Cave In announced a lengthy hiatus in 2006, though they publicly insisted on labeling it a hiatus as opposed to a break-up. Drummer John-Robert Conners officially exited the band and has been replaced by Ben Koller (Converge). Brodsky, McGrath and Scofield have been keeping busy with a number of solo and side-projects; Stephen Brodsky’s Octave Museum, Clouds, and Zozobra (for more information on these check out a piece I wrote in August of ’07).
Here’s to hoping for an eventual Cave In reunion. The members of Cave In are so creative and forward-thinking that I have the utmost faith anything they put out will be of the highest quality. And there’s still plenty of time; the band members aren’t even 30 yet, getting their starts as 15 year-olds. Cave In are without a doubt one of the most creative, interesting and overlooked rock bands of the last 10 years; but their legacy is not yet complete.