Is Rush cool? Is Boston the new Big Star? Has Guns n' Roses' debut album, Appetite for Destruction, pulled ahead of the first Velvet Underground record, The Pixies' Doolittle, and Wire's Pink Flag as one of the most influential LPs on American indie rock? I just don't know anymore. But these are central questions to pose when looking at the current state of underground music.
The answers? Well, depending on the last time you went into a club, you might be surprised at what you see. There are the vamping keyboards and thrift-store androgyny of the new New Wave (see: The Faint, The Vue, and Camera Obscura, who recently toured as a three-band package). And then there are the guys young enough to have been just passing thoughts in their parents' minds when The Jam was around, onstage playing elaborate power-pop with three-part harmonies and sporting Paul Weller mop-tops (Moods for Moderns, The Damn Personals, etc.). Or maybe you could catch one of the countless groups--Rye Coalition, The Fucking Champs, Tight Bros. From Way Back When, most of Sub Pop's roster--making the connections between Gn'R, the Dead Boys, MC5, Zeppelin, Sabbath, and most any other group of mustached Titans from decades past, all in the name of reviving the clogged heart of the parent-scarin', Satan-praisin' beast that is Rock and Roll.
Perhaps the fear that Rock is Dead (killed by turntables, I guess) has caused this wave of fervent revivalism. But it would definitely seem that everything is up for grabs. And the range of bands from which people draw inspiration has widened: No longer is virtuosity looked down upon, nor are particularly high-end production techniques, in a scene that once espoused passion over prowess and charm over professionalism.
Some bands, even some of the ones listed above, twist the sounds and images they appropriate, and make them their own. Take, for example, Jupiter, the new album from the Boston's Cave-In. Jupiter has all the markings of a classic-rock record. Its interstellar cover art stretches around its packaging, bathed in green and dark blue, showing the surface of that largest of planets, not entirely unlike the paintings that once adorned the epic voyages into gated elf villages and organ solos by the oft-maligned Yes.
The songs on Jupiter swirl and crash around, submerged in effects and dancing in outer orbit, while thunderous drums rein in the guitars. It's all intended to sound, as guitarist Adam McGrath puts it, "like OK Computer with Led Zeppelin drums." All of it is miles away from the Cave-In of just a few years ago: It was only 1998 when the band released Until Your Heart Stops, a solid entry into the gruff genre known as metal-hardcore. With down-tuned Slayer riffs played over savage double-kick drums, and an "I'm pissed, scared, and angry" ethos growled over it all, it would've taken a healthy imagination to foresee Jupiter as the next full-length from this young band.
"After, Until Your Heart Stops, we were trying to write some songs [in the same metal-hardcore vein]," McGrath says, "and it just wasn't happening. We weren't happy."
The antidote to this creative malaise was to shrug off the expectations of their fan base and the constraints of the genre, and make the record that came naturally to them. The result was the EP Creative Eclipses.
"The EP was kind of an accident," says singer-guitarist Steve Brodsky, who writes most of the band's material. "We were kind of in a rush to get out of the sound of Until Your Heart Stops. The transition had a lot to do with writing as a four-piece rather than a five-piece. [Cave-In had a revolving cast of vocalists in the early stages of its career.] We just weren't writing in the same framework."
The reaction to the EP was mixed; while some fans appreciated the band's growth, many were disappointed with the departure. "We got, 'How come you guys aren't metal anymore?'" McGrath explains. "Someone actually told us we should change our name if this is what we were going to sound like." With that in mind, one would wonder if there was any uncertainty about pushing their sound even further.
"There was never any hesitation." McGrath says. "We've always had influences outside of punk, or metal, or hardcore, and I think those influences are just starting to shine through a bit more. We've always been into Zeppelin and Radiohead. And you think about the Beatles; they went from 'I Want to Hold Your Hand' to Abbey Road over just a couple of years. And the music remains so human. I think we just wanted to keep growing."
Those decidedly non-metal-core influences can be heard in abundance on Jupiter. Over the eight songs, the band weaves Pink Floyd atmosphere with old-school hard-rock heaviness and prog dexterity. The closest the band comes to their sound of old is the crunching "Big Riff"; but even that song observes Sabbath rather than the serrated guitars of Slayer. The combination of studio-as-instrument ambiance, and hard-rock dynamics, makes for a striking sound. However, while Cave-In is a somewhat successful group by indie-rock standards, and their label, Hydrahead, is no slouch, releasing some of the best aggressive music of the last few years, the band didn't have Dark Side of the Moon money to spend in the studio. Which begs the question: How close is Jupiter to what the band intended?
"I think Brian [McTernan, the engineer of the record] did an amazing job," McGrath says. "The thing is, we really wanted a live-sounding record. For all the effects and spacey-sounding stuff, it's mostly live in the studio. I think whenever we finish a record, when we mix it and master it, we just sit there and think everyone's going to hate it. We felt that way about Jupiter. But what you hear is pretty much what we heard. I think everyone shines. This was the first time we all got in there and played; and I really like that, for as much as it sounds 'produced,' it's just the four of us in a room."
Cave-In's fear that the album would be met with public scorn seems to have been unfounded: Since its release, Jupiter has received mostly euphoric reviews, and it has brought the band a larger and more diverse audience than ever before. Their fan base has broadened, leading to shows outside of the metal-core genre.
"People seem to be really attentive," McGrath says. "When we play with Rainer Maria or Jets to Brazil, people seem really into it. Before the album came out, if we played something from Jupiter, something with a quiet part, you'd hear people talking. But now the audience seems really attentive."
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Goodbye to metal-hardcore, then?
"I still think there are some amazing bands playing in that genre--bands like Isis, Converge, or Dillinger Escape Plan--are just phenomenal," McGrath says. "But the genre seems to be getting so watered-down. Everyone is just doing the same kind of thing."
Perhaps the best thing about Jupiter is how it opens up the band's sound, introducing a whole new vocabulary for the musicians. The same goes for the loosening of traditional influences in the underground; if the results are records as ambitious as Jupiter, then bring on the Neal Peart solos! Even if the results go sour, it's about time we had some bad Night Ranger-influenced bands; God knows we've had enough bad Kraut-rock bands to last for a few lifetimes. For Cave-In, the future would seem to be wide open. So, will the band head farther into outer space?
"We're starting to write stuff; it's fun, because I feel like we have a lot of options," McGrath says. "But Jupiter still seems really fresh to us. We need some new toys though."