Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Interlude (or Moment's Greatest Hits 4)

A sound I didn't know I was in search of. Some kind of unself-conscious prog/roots hybrid. Pure mellow intrigue. See you down the rabbit hole.

Other recent delights:

Bob Mould Patch the Sky
Raw and immediate. More uncut, even provocatively unfinished-sounding Bob, in the vein of last two excellent LPs.

Vijay Iyer and Wadada Leo Smith a cosmic rhythm with each stroke
The record-to-get-lost-in record of 2016 so far. Two artists' current flowerings entwine; each works hard on this album to showcase the other.

The Snails Songs From the Shoebox
Seriously charming Future Islands offshoot. Some thoughts.

P.S. Happy Cecil Taylor renaissance.

Monday, March 14, 2016

craw weekend 2016: It's a wrap

craw at Saint Vitus
Photo: Remi Thornton

The previous post was about my reaction to the craw-centric events of the past few days. All I wrote there applies to my experiences of the Cleveland and NYC shows, which surpassed any and all expectations. (Go here for photo and video evidence.) But I left Saint Vitus last night with a different feeling, call it a community awareness, a sense of how an intense, bizarre and uncompromising underground band can become a portal to a shared feeling of transcendence.

I saw so many fans moved on such a deep level by these performances, both those who had seen the band back in the day and those who never got the chance. I saw band members giddy with disbelief at finally getting the reception they'd always deserved but rarely ever got before. I saw a mutual celebration of the enduring art that craw created, honed and perfected with painstaking effort all those years ago. I saw 75 minutes of classic songs, performed with pure spirit fire and channeled through a frontman who radiates a raving, possessed intensity. I saw sublime musical terror of exactly the sort I remember witnessing when I was a teenager—and all while standing within inches of some of my dearest, oldest KC friends (shouts to Drew, Kyle and Jeff), who saw craw with me the first time around, and my NYC blood brothers, who have loved the band's records for years but hadn't seen them play.

It was all just beyond magical. In particular, I want to thank Drew (a.k.a. Remi Thornton) for coming along for the ride and taking some brilliant pictures; Northern Spy and Aqualamb for all their hard work on the box set; my friends and STATS bandmates Joe and Tony (and constant comrade / special guest Nick) for sharing the stage with me at Saint Vitus; the Great Iron Snake, Murderedman and Black Black Black for their great opening sets; the Grog Shop and Saint Vitus for being such gracious hosts; Esra Y., Ron K., John P. and Georgia Z. for the CLE hospitality; Brad Cohan, Evan Harms and all the other writers who previewed the shows; new friends Patrick W. and Rob H. for their enthusiasm and fellowship; all the kind, gracious fans I met at both shows; and of course Chris, Rockie, Neil, Zak, Dave, Joe and Will for playing (and screaming) their asses off. I also want to thank Torsten Meyer for the following video. (More documentation of both shows coming soon.)

Lastly, I want to thank Pyrrhon vocalist and writer extraordinaire Doug Moore for putting together the below article on the band, a fine piece featuring insightful commentary from craw's Joe McTighe. The piece was slated to run before the shows, but did not go live as planned. I reproduce it here for posterity, and as a complement to the wealth of articles found here.

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."

Friday, March 11, 2016

Full-spirit wince (or: craw 2016, an invitation)

Joe McTighe and Will Scharf of craw, with the author in background. Photo: Remi Thornton

I have often called craw my favorite band. To declare something one's favorite anything is a forceful but not all that evocative statement—one that holds little meaning for anyone who isn't saying it. Yesterday, though, sitting on the floor in a rehearsal space in a dingy building behind a lumber yard in Cleveland, watching and listening to craw rehearse for their shows tonight in town at the Grog Shop and tomorrow at Brooklyn's Saint Vitus, I felt like I had a better sense of exactly what I've meant by that all these years.

We speak of being "moved" by music, or any kind of art. That is to say, we're taken somewhere. Sometimes that transport is gentle, a subtle and gradual conveyance. Other times, it's more urgent. To some degree, any heavy music is transportive—exposure to extreme volume, way beyond the cacophony of, say, an average urban commute, has a certain automatic effect. But what I realized about craw's music yesterday, as vocalist Joe McTighe howled and grimaced over writhing stop-start cadences, monumental swells and catharses, and perversely shimmying riffs, is that it is essentially unbearable. It elicits in me a kind of full-spirit wince, a masochistic thrill.

It is so harsh and unrelenting, but also so full of naked feeling and twisted insight. Their creations are fanatical, fantastical, so bizarrely outside the realm of what so much other music, even heavy music in craw's general aesthetic ballpark, would ever think to attempt. It is a private, insular art, so clearly in service, first and foremost, to its creators' obsessive vision. It doesn't care if you're listening, and yet its self-presentation is, for all its complexity, immaculate. It is a hyperarticulate shriek, so stupendously apart from the notion that music is meant to accompany anything, even, say, stereotypical metal behaviors such as headbanging or moshing. You don't do anything in its presence except for behold it, and, in my case—and I've seen this reaction in a few others—sort of tremble before it, fascination mingling with fear. That feeling is the closest thing to the sublime that I have known in art—it's the same for me now as it was 20 years ago.

And having seen the 2016 incarnation of craw up close, I can tell you that the magic is intact. I'm happy to report that this band—bands, really, since craw is performing this weekend in at least two equally brilliant but completely different lineups—can still pin you against the wall. Consider this an invitation to come experience the feeling for yourself:

Cleveland tonight (Friday, 3/11/16).
NYC tomorrow (Saturday, 3/12/16).

See you there. You can follow the weekend's progress on Facebook and Instagram.

Tuesday, March 08, 2016

craw live

To any Cleveland or NYC folk who might be reading this, I hope you will join us this weekend for two special craw reunion shows in support of the recent box-set release. If you plan on attending, I recommend purchasing advance tickets via the links below:

Friday, 3/11/16
The Grog Shop; Cleveland, OH

Saturday, 3/12/16
Saint Vitus; Brooklyn, NY

These shows will feature music from all four of the band's studio LPs, performed by all seven members who appeared on those albums. Plus some special surprises!

These will be the first craw shows of any kind since 2010, the first with vocalist Joe McTighe since 2002, and the first with several of the ex-members since 1994–95. The Saint Vitus show will be craw's first live appearance on the East Coast since 1997.

There will be plenty of merch available, including box sets, new T-shirts and signed prints of the above poster, designed for the occasion by the awesome Derek Hess.

Updates, enticements, info:

craw website
craw on Bandcamp
craw on Facebook
craw on Instagram
craw on Twitter