A band loses its underground fans, gets rejected by the mainstream, and makes the best album of its career.
Few bands are more battle-scarred from the music industry than Cave In. The band started in 1995 in Methuen, a suburb of Boston. After the usual lineup changes and absorption of influences, Cave In released a series of feral 7"s before signing to Hydra Head Records. Along with labelmates Converge, Coalesce, and Botch, Cave In helped transform hardcore punk in the late '90s. Simple riffs gave way to angular dissonance and Slayer-esque thrash. Lyrics moved from sloganeering to intensely personal. 1999's Until Your Heart Stops was a hardcore landmark, full of twists and turns, careening unpredictably from emotional catharsis to brutal breakdowns.
Then, Jupiter. Fearing for the longevity of his voice, singer/guitarist Stephen Brodsky stopped screaming and started singing. The rest of the band followed suit. On 2000's Jupiter, Cave In unclenched. Gone were the metal, the dissonance, and the anger, replaced by melodic chords, spacy textures, and shoegazing prog rock. Cave In had become a different band. Hardcore fans, never the most open-minded of folks, hated the new sound. People threw things at the band at shows, rooms cleared, cries of "sell out" abounded. But critics loved the album, and the band's melodic slant brought major labels a-courtin'.
Cave In signed to RCA for 2003's Antenna. The move brought all the pros and cons of working for a major label: higher budgets, better distribution, more pressure for hits, more hands in the pie. The band members gave up their day jobs and spent months in the studio. The result was Antenna, which polished and condensed the band's intricate sound into three- and four-minute songs. RCA chose "Anchor", the album's shortest (but far from best) song as the single. Both the single and the album flopped, despite the band's increasingly sophisticated songcraft. Worse yet, Cave In's A&R person left RCA, leaving the band with no allies at the label. Despite touring worldwide with Foo Fighters, playing to thousands at the Reading and Leeds festivals, and even an appearance on The Carson Daly Show, Cave In's future at RCA was doomed. The label rejected the band's demos for a new album, and Cave In and RCA parted ways.
Hydra Head welcomed the band back with open arms. Rumors began to circulate that the band was now playing its early hardcore material at shows. Had the Cave In of old returned? Well, not exactly. Perfect Pitch Black channels the band's frustration with its major label experience into its most aggressive effort since Jupiter. But it's a far cry from hardcore punk. Rather, it's a marriage of Cave In's heavy and melodic sides. A runner that lifts weights and gains size doesn't run as agilely as before. Likewise, instead of the tense, brittle freakouts of yore, the grooves here are confident, powerful, swinging. Bassist Caleb Scofield is the star of the album, with a volcanic tone, screamed vocals that counterpoint Brodsky's singing, and locked-in unisons with the guitars. The rhythm section is muscular, recalling early Pearl Jam or even Led Zeppelin, especially on "Trepanning", a massive boogie that would make Corrosion of Conformity proud.
But for all the hype about its renewed aggression, the band's pop sensibilities are still sharp. "Off to Ruin" is classic Cave In, with Brodsky's Anglo-pop croon echoing sinuous guitar lines. "Paranormal" is a U2-esque anthem with a psychedelic interlude that recalls Pink Floyd. "Screaming in Your Sleep" is all hips and shoulders, yet harmonically complex. "Down the Drain", a lush acoustic number, could have been the radio single that RCA never got. Otherwise, Perfect Pitch Black isn't radio-friendly. For every aching vocal and sweet chord change, there's a scary howl and a ball-busting riff. This album is hard to categorize because it's balanced. Cave In is very much caught (or planted) between the underground and the mainstream.
It's a long way from Leeds when Cave In takes the stage on a chilly December night in San Francisco. The venue is small, and the attendance is smaller, perhaps 100. The band's setup is spartan: battered guitars, pedalboards, matching Sunn amps, a minimal drum kit. The guitarists soundcheck with Metallica and Black Sabbath riffs. Even soundcheck is deafeningly loud. Once clean-cut in the major label days, the band members now sport beards and mustaches. Brodsky's beard is particularly scruffy, almost gnome-like. He straps on his guitar, looks out over the sparse crowd, and leans into the set's opening riffs. In his old Converge sweatshirt, he looks at home.