Monday, March 14, 2016
Guest post: Doug Moore on craw
"Meet Craw, the Greatest '90s Noise-Rock Band You've Never Heard"
by Doug Moore
[See the end of this post for context.]
In many ways, the story of the '90s-era Cleveland band craw is a classic tale of monastic devotion and unrewarded work. But it's also a triumph of stubborn individualism, a "toxic cultural stiff-arm," as vocalist Joe McTighe put it in an email interview. Though unrecognized in their time, the band's four albums constitute a vital piece of the bedrock from which modern underground metal and hardcore now proceed. A new deluxe reissue from the Brooklyn labels Northern Spy and Aqualamb, 1993–1997, aims to bring this influence to light.
Craw emerged from a fertile period in the American rock underground. At the end of the '80s, when the band formed on the campus of Case Western Reserve University, many of the barriers that had previously constrained rock's artistic expansion had fallen. Weird stylistic mutations like post-punk, No Wave, math rock and thrash metal thrived via DIY recording and touring methods. Eventually, these styles began to interbreed.
One byproduct of this mix was a frightening expanse of shifting time signatures, blaring amps, shrieking chords and yowling singers, known variously as post-hardcore and noise rock. Many of the bands that first explored it—the Jesus Lizard, Melvins, Today Is the Day, Neurosis, Helmet—achieved surprising renown. And most of these acts shared bills with craw.
But comparing craw even to these oddballs does a disservice to the specificity of their sound: a staggering, weaving keen-roar; a relentless improvisational churn, by turns sinister and poignant, anthemic and ambiguous. Their music combined metal heft and layered noise; jazz chords and compound rhythms; insane structural ambition; and McTighe's swerve-throated antisinging, in which he incanted elliptical yarns informed by contemporary science, politics and literature, leavened with snark. (Asked what contemporary writers best capture craw's lyrical concerns, McTighe responds: "Pynchon in Gravity's Rainbow and some of what J.G. Ballard wrote. Both writers create worlds in which the social systems overwhelm and transform the individuals inhabiting them.")
In order to achieve the technical mastery required to execute their staggeringly detailed songs, craw subjected themselves to a brutal discipline. They practiced together incessantly, sometimes daily, while living in privation and working crappy jobs to get by. The gritty details of these gigs would creep into McTighe's lyrics; a gutter-cleaning job that both McTighe and guitarist David McClelland held inspired the 12-minute epic "Days in the Gutter/Nights in the Gutter."
Craw's efforts produced three dizzyingly inventive '90s LPs, but never translated into a large following. Their demanding approach—too feral for hipsters, too shredding for punks, too ragged for metalheads, too smart and weird for virtually everyone—made them difficult to market, and thus difficult to sustain. The lengthy tours craw undertook were especially taxing; McTighe remembers his frustration well: "At the time I romanticized it as doing my bit in the marketplace of ideas. This self-delusion continued until poorly attended shows burst that bubble."
By the time craw connected with renowned art-metal label Hydra Head for 2002's Bodies for Strontium 90, the exhausted band had begun to drift apart. The members went their separate ways shortly after its release.
Craw's grueling run won them scattered but devoted admirers, though. Among them was noise-rock prime mover and recording legend Steve Albini, who worked on their first three albums. ("They never imitate," said Albini of craw in a 1997 interview. "Other bands imitate them.") Also in Craw's corner were the artist Derek Hess, who provided them with album cover and flyer illustrations; and Hydra Head label boss, and former leader of acclaimed avant-metal outfit Isis, Aaron Turner. "Their appeal was pretty black and white—people either fell in love with it or just didn't know what to do with it," says Turner of the band.
But craw's biggest fan is almost certainly the Brooklyn-based writer and musician Hank Shteamer, who admits that he's tipped into full-on obsession at times. "In terms of my own listening, I hold these albums up alongside the work of John Coltrane, Led Zeppelin and other acknowledged masters," says Shteamer of craw. He first encountered them in the mid-'90s while growing up in his native Kansas City, and has since become their unofficial historian and chief public advocate.
Frustrated by craw's lack of critical recognition, Shteamer recently recruited the indie record labels Northern Spy, Aqualamb and Hydra Head for a crowdfunded campaign to reissue Craw's first three albums as 1993–1997, a vinyl box set with a companion oral history. Thanks in part to the success of the release, craw will play two reunion shows—one at the Grog Shop in their native Cleveland on March 11th, another at Brooklyn's Saint Vitus on March 12th, with both shows featuring all seven members who appeared in various combinations on the band's four albums.
Craw have reappeared in a heavy music landscape that makes their prescience obvious. Freewheeling stylistic alchemy has become commonplace; dissonance and dense rhythms have infected every corner of the metal world; wild dynamic shifts garner applause rather than confusion. In short, metal has become highbrow, just like craw. Even McTighe's lyrical themes—technology run amok, the invasive creep of surveillance and corporate power—now scan as predictive, though their author credits his found sources ahead of his own foresight.
Both Shteamer and Turner agree that craw would more readily find fans today, and this consensus was part of the impetus for Shteamer's reissue campaign. But ultimately, such questions are immaterial to the band's members and always have been. They were concerned solely with pursuing their wild, withering vision—a purity for which their struggles were a small price to pay. And those struggles produced the kind of memories that nobody would give up.
"We got the songs," says McTighe of his years in craw, "The songs that are part of us by choice and by repetition, the songs that were ignored by most yet received as gospel by a few fanatics, songs that are a challenge for us to play well, songs that remind us of our time together—petty bickering as well as genuine friendship, songs that also remind us of the people we met on the road—the freaks, the outcasts, those beyond the pale, those with whom we immediately recognized as fellow travelers, those that helped us when we didn't expect help and those that took the air out of our tires (literally and otherwise), the songs around which our lives were shaped for many years."