When Cave In made its first trip to Denver six years ago, the anticipation was feverish. And for good reason: The Boston quartet was touring in support of its second disc, Until Your Heart Stops, which was and remains an undeniable hardcore masterpiece. Combining the power of Slayer, the melody of Sunny Day Real Estate and the progressive angst of Converge, the album helped ignite a metalcore explosion that would soon shake the new millennium. That night, 400 kids packed into the Raven (now the Climax Lounge), eager to be crushed under the act's monolithic riffage. And Cave In obliged -- that is, up to a point.
Halfway through its set, the band started slowing things down. After switching on an array of effects pedals, which they had used only sparingly before, the foursome -- singer/guitarist Stephen Brodsky, bassist Caleb Scofield, guitarist Adam McGrath and drummer John-Robert Conners -- began morphing their music into an ethereal, nearly psychedelic assault that seemed to owe as much to Pink Floyd as it did to Snapcase. And in a gesture whose symbolism was as mind-blowing as the sounds it produced, Brodsky took out a toy laser pistol on stage, aimed into the pickups of his guitar and pulled the trigger until his speakers erupted in a spew of digitally warped space-age noise.
"Yeah, the laser guns. We were ripping off Sonic Youth," Brodsky admits with a laugh. "At that point, we were becoming more conscious of the fact that our record collections were broader than what our musical output was reflective of. We didn't really want to hide that anymore. We played this festival in Michigan where we'd only do the first twenty seconds of our heavy-metal songs and then jump right into one of our new songs, just for fun and to see how far we could go. We felt like that was something to do to set us apart.
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"We come from a music scene where progression is very limited in certain ways," he continues. "Bands copy each other, as opposed to seeking outside influences to bring into their musical sphere. We were trying to antagonize people a little bit, and people were really upset by that."
Accordingly, the crowd was dumbfounded. There were a lot of split opinions heard from Cave In diehards after that tour -- a rift that grew wider when, in 2000, the group released Jupiter. Compared to Until Your Heart Stops, the disc was a slow-motion curveball; steeped in the frigid currents of space rock and shoegazer as well as the majesty of classic rock and prog, Jupiter stupefied. Gone were the riffs and the screams. In their place were interstellar lullabies and Brodsky's soaring, stranded-on-a-planetoid wail.
"I wanted to develop myself more as a singer and invite as much melody into the picture as possible," Brodsky explains. "It was impossible to get any heavier than we already were, and at the time, there were bands like Coalesce and Dillinger Escape Plan who were playing very heavy and doing it in such a way that we felt humbled by it. We couldn't compare to that. So Jupiter was our way of pushing our own boundaries."
Long before the album was conceived, Brodsky had settled on the title. He was intrigued by Jupiter because it was "the largest planet in our solar system, but also a failed star," he wrote in the act's bio. Those words proved prophetic. Soon after the release of Jupiter -- which would go on to inspire acts like Pelican, the Mars Volta and Denver's own Vaux (whose first incarnation, Eiffel, had opened that legendary Raven show) -- Cave In signed to RCA. Jupiter's major-label followup, Antenna, came out in 2003. And while the massively ambitious record didn't necessarily make failed stars out of Brodsky and company, it was still a letdown to many of the band's fans -- not to mention to Cave In itself.
"I think you can still find it in the bargain bin," jokes Brodsky, who confesses that he doesn't even know, or particularly care, if Antenna is still in print. It's not hard to see why. Although there's no denying the force and inventiveness of some of its tracks, the disc was ultimately an overproduced, unsatisfying compromise between highbrow abstraction and arena-rock pomp.
"With Jupiter, there was no trickery involved, no vocal overdubs or studio magic. It was something we were very conscious of," Brodsky reveals. "We certainly could have recorded Antenna that way, given the amount of rehearsing and pre-production and shrink-wrapping of the songs that we had done. I feel people were a little disappointed that we weren't more courageous with the record. It didn't feel bold enough. More than anything, we felt that we, as musicians, fell a bit short."
One of the main reasons Cave In chose RCA out of its many major-label suitors was a contract that promised the band complete creative control over its output. But as Brodsky eventually found out, a corporation's dominance over its employees can be insidiously subtle.
"We did get a lot of money to sign to the label, and when you take a lot of money, you do forfeit a bit of control," he notes. "Maybe a better way of putting it would be, you invite more opinions into the mix. We were told that it would be much more helpful to everybody involved if some of our songs were playable on the radio. Who knows what that means? That's open to interpretation. What goes to radio is usually decided by ten people at the label. That's kind of weird, when you think about it."
Despite touring with Foo Fighters and snagging a slot on 2003's Lollapalooza, the group's RCA debut and its single, "Anchor," went nowhere. Soon after, the imprint merged with Jive Records, and Cave In found itself without friends or even an A&R rep at the company. The band soon holed itself up in the studio during one of the bleakest New England winters in recent memory and started recording demos for what was to become its new album, Perfect Pitch Black. When tape after tape was either rejected or ignored by RCA, Brodsky and his comrades decided it was time to put the brakes on the band's runaway evolution.
"We weren't these little, starry-eyed, impressionable signees to the corporate world anymore," he says. "We wanted our band back, and we got it." After a long but relatively painless disentanglement from RCA, Cave In returned to its original label, Hydra Head -- the indie run by Aaron Turner of Isis -- and released Perfect Pitch Black.
"We certainly had a blast writing most of the stuff on Perfect Pitch Black," Brodsky recalls. "Just smoking lots of pot, drinking lots of beer, enjoying each other's company and enjoying the creativity that was coming out of it.
"The artwork for the record is very gray," he adds, "and gray is usually the color of grave markers. There were points during the whole process of making this album that we thought it might be our last. But it turned out to be the grave marker for a particular period of our career. We finally feel like Cave In belongs to Cave In again."
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The outfit's newfound enthusiasm shows. Heavier and more dynamic than its predecessor, Perfect is an ideal marriage of smarts, hooks and sonic gravity that at last fully embraces the scope of its creators' musical tastes.
"It's sort of the black sheep of all of our records so far," Brodsky says. "It doesn't sound like any one of the albums we've done, but it bears the fingerprints of lots of different elements. I think our next record will be yet another reflection of the growth our record collections have taken over the last few years. That encompasses everything from Frank Zappa to John Fahey."
Zappa and Fahey? Even with the recent replacement of Conners with Converge's talented and versatile Ben Koller, that sounds like a recipe for potential disaster. But Cave In has conducted deadlier experiments on itself in the past -- and proved that hardcore needs risk-takers and visionaries if it hopes to stay vital.
"Whenever we put out a record, some people passionately enjoy it and some people passionately dislike it," Brodsky points out. "And that's okay. Anything in the middle, anything devoid of passion, is just boring."