Cerberus Shoal is a missing piece of history. In the early ’90s Slint came along, finding a way to escape the indie rock and alternative rock domains and make a move towards post-rock. Spiderland was the result of that effort, and a record that would influence the post-rock scene of the ’00s. At the same time, and in a much more underground manner, Cerberus Shoal were experimenting with similar notions. Instead of the post-hardcore and math-rock elements displayed by Slint, the band from Boston set out to experiment with folk elements, improvisational progression, and emo injections, all documented through a plethora of releases.
Most of the works of Cerberus Shoal remained in the underground, but thankfully Temporary Residence, through which the band released the Homb and Mr. Boy Dog records and the Travels in Constants vol. 10 EP, has gathered five excellent full-length albums from the band and is now re-releasing them. Listening back to these records it is astounding to behold how forward thinking this act has been, and how off-kilter for the time their scope was. Constantly morphing through one album to the next, Cerberus Shoal seemed to be in constant state of flux, trying out different things and constantly experimenting with different influences and sounds. So, let’s break down their turbulent offerings.
The band released their self-titled full-length in 1995. At the time, this was released as a mini-LP through Stella White. Through Cerberus Shoal the band introduced their droned out post-rock aesthetics, showcased brilliantly in the fantastic “Daddy As Seen From Bar Harbor”. The 11-minute opus found Cerberus Shoal carefully structuring the dynamics of their track, adding subtle improvisations and unleashing impressive explosions of energy. At the same time, the subtle melodies of “Elena” were accompanied by background spoken word passages, creating a more atmospheric structure, which many acts would borrow from. Noisier elements still came into play, with the distortion at an all-time high for tracks like “Change” and “Breakaway Terminal Cable”, which revealed this kinship to noise rock artists and to a certain extent no-wave pioneers.
One year later the band would return with …And Farewell to Hightide, a record featuring a similar perspective to the band’s masterful debut. The post-rock structures and progressions were still at the centre of attention for Cerberus Shoal, but the emotive quality was expanded further. Opening track “Falling to Pieces Part One” and “J.B.O. Vs. Blin” reveled in this sense of subtle experimentation and serenity. The long form compositions did not necessarily had to erupt in a post-rock explosion but could be perpetually repeated, building a fantastic dreamlike scenery. This brought Cerberus Shoal closer to the free folk aesthetic, as tracks like “Make Winter a Driving Song” reveal so clearly. The extended instrumentation which includes trumpet, flute, organ and accordion further enhanced that aspect of the band, and were the main indicators that Cerberus Shoal was evolving still.
While Cerberus Shoal and …And Farewell to Hightide shared many characteristics, the band’s next release, Elements of Structure/Permanence was a complete game changer. Firstly, this release was instrumental featuring only some sampled vocals. But secondly, this found Cerberus Shoal experimenting with free improvisation elements, moving even outside the rock domain and into a jazz trajectory. The melodic lines at the start of “Elements of Structures” display this jazz influence, while the tribal percussion adds a world music characteristic to this endeavor. Through the repetitive mantras of these two longform tracks, Cerberus Shoal showcased that pretty much everything was possible with this band.
And so the band’s fourth record, Homb, came along. Here Cerberus Shoal still take on elements of their improvisational journey with Elements of Structure/Permanence but perform another interesting twist. Instead of the chamber jazz ambiance of the previous release, the band travels to interstellar planes with the power of psychedelia. Sampled vocals and strange synths/effect make an appearance in the opening track “Harvest”, creating a completely unexpected alien ambiance. Still, to drive the point home, the band begins to take on characteristics of progressive rock bands, unleashing the excellent “Omphalos”, which walks a fine line between prog rock and psychedelia. Yet, the most impressive moment of this work is the “Myrrh” triptych, which sees the band take on an ambitious endeavor in coalescing elements of post-rock, prog rock, psychedelia and noise in a single endeavor. It is the richness of the sonic textures and the genre bending approach of Cerberus Shoal that turns this journey into a completely transcendental experience.
The final entry on the Temporary Residence reissues comes in the band’s double album Mr. Boy Dog. This work did not feature so much a novel approach for Cerberus Shoal, but rather an attempt of bringing all the different sides of the band together under one roof. The result is admirable, but it feels like the band is losing the plot a bit, trying to connect too many dots. The jazz progression is predominant, with the improvisational aspect playing a key role in this endeavor, with “Nataraja”, “Camel Bell”, and the epic “Tongue Drongue” coalescing the jazz spirit with a tribal sense. On the other hand, experimentations with noise are also in play, showing a more extravagant facade from Cerberus Shoal, as is the case with “Untitled I” and “Untitled II”, while the folk perspective gets its dues in the country/medieval music wonder that is “Nod”.
These re-releases are an essential part of rock history, and they reveal not only how important Cerberus Shoal has been to the post-rock scene, but also how brilliant this band was. Through the years they might have changed their appearance in numerous occasions, and at times it seems like they bite off more than they could chew, but their experimental attitude and free-form vision of music is what needs to be remembered. And to be fair, it is remembered by many of the post-rock acts of the 2000s and today’s scenes.