Artist Spotlight: Cave In

Some bands were obviously never going make it big. Some make it there, only to lose the very thing that made them special. Some fluke their way to success, through sheer happenstance. And then there are those bands who had the vision, work ethic, inventiveness and listener-friendly appeal – everything you’d want to have, on paper, to succeed – and end up falling short anyway. Cave In were a band who fell solidly into the latter category. Their story reads like one of those Our Band Could Be Your Life groups who laid the groundwork for Nirvana: the harsh early sound, the endless touring schedule, the maturing songwriting, flirtations with the mainstream, then finally, bitter disappointments, acrimonious splits, and a dubious afterlife. In other words, a tale as old as time. The only difference is, their story took place in the late 90s and early 2000s, not the 80s, and presaged no independent rock boom. Their frustration, such as it was, would remain theirs alone.

Cave-In (as they were originally named, after a Codeine song) underwent several lineup changes almost immediately upon formation in Methuen, Massachusetts (30 miles North/Northwest of Boston) – in fact, most of the members weren’t even full-time initially. By the time they settled into an “official” lineup of Stephen Brodsky (vocals, guitar), Caleb Scofield (bass, vocals), Adam McGrath (guitar) and John-Robert Connors (drums), the young group had recorded a rough album’s worth of one-off material, eventually compiled into a release titled Beyond Hypothermia (1998) on the Hydra Head label. With finalized lineup in tow (Stephen just had to go ahead and play on a Converge album first), they embarked on their first major tour to support their full-length debut Until Your Heart Stops (B+) in 1998.

This early Cave-In stuff is almost unfathomably brutal, especially if you’re accustomed to their later material. All the standard metalcore hallmarks are there – vocals screamed way beyond the top of one’s lungs, quick, constant time signature changes, stretches of straight-ahead, syncopated chugging alternating with blisteringly fast guitarwork, even some noisy breakdowns. The song title “Controlled Mayhem Then Erupts” basically says it all. If you’re already familiar with early Converge, Coalesce, Botch, and Dillinger Escape Plan, this is your jam. What they bring to the genre is a special emphasis on progressive arrangements (there are a few epic-length tracks here, precursors to the more streamlined style they would develop), a tendency to alternate screams with spoken-word and sometimes even sung vocals, and a generally more spacey, almost psychedelic sound. And while I find this music very impressive on a technical level, I feel like they weren’t quite as good at it as some of their peers. There are amazing moments (particularly on the longer tracks), but Cave-In already come across as so experimental here that when I listen to it, the primary feeling it gives me is one of anticipation of the band they’ll become more so than the appreciation of the band they are at this moment in time. It’s hard to tell whether they’re playing to their strengths yet when it isn’t even clear exactly what those strengths are.

Bands are often derided for “going soft” whenever they start heavy and begin to diversify, but Stephen actually was risking permanent damage to his vocal chords before making the switch from mostly-screaming to mostly-singing in his style. The 1999 e.p. Creative Eclipses (A-) would therefore take a big sidestep away from Cave In’s heavier tendencies, while still retaining every bit of their progressive/experimental streak. “Luminance” seems like an unassuming introduction to this new style, but it gives way to the ambient instrumental “Sonata McGrath.” By the time you get through the Failure1 cover “Magnified,” the Simon And Garfunkel-ish acoustic folk of “Burning Down The Billboards,” and ANOTHER ambient instrumental “Sonata Brodsky,” you are left with the sense that Cave In could basically go anywhere from here. Even years after their opportunity has come and gone, this is still an incredibly exciting release to listen to – it’s the sound of a band just beginning to tap into their real potential.

Still, a band’s got to settle on an identity sometime, haven’t they? Enter Jupiter (2000, A) a re-debut of sorts, in which Cave In unveil an entirely unique sound between space rock, psychedelia, prog, alternative, and even a bit of metal. Through eight expansive tracks, they demonstrate an astonishingly advanced 2 understanding of melody, rhythm, tune, timing, noise, dynamics, structure, musicianship, and about a thousand other little elements that they wield like some kind of cosmic superweapon to serve their songs. Where previous releases showcased an “anything goes” inventiveness, this one finds them focusing their breakthrough discoveries into crafting a style that is instantly-recognizable – one can almost imagine Cedric Bixler-Zavala and Omar Rodriguez-Lopez hearing it and saying “We’ve got to get in on this.” 3 “Big Riff” sounds like the kind of epic they’ve been working towards since the beginning, stacking up Caleb Scofield’s brutal growls, Adam McGrath’s trippy effects-laden guitar licks, Stephen’s ever-improving grasp of vocal melody and John-Robert Conners’ ability to drive the monolithic beast forward. Yet the title track and “Brain Candle” also demonstrate a growing propensity for creating honest-to-god three-minute pop songs. At this point, the most radical thing a band like Cave In could is try to go commercial.

Tides Of Tomorrow (2002, A-) doesn’t quite deliver on the “Cave In as normal alternative rock band” promise, but it does manage to quietly, subtly do away with the band’s more out-there/psychedelic-ish trappings while maintaining their consistent spacey atmosphere. The six-song e.p. contains two of their most infectious melodies in “The Calypso” and “Everest,” as well as a Giants Chair cover song called “The Callus”. That leaves three more tracks to showcase the rapid songwriting maturity this band has developed in barely half-a-decade: “Come Into Your Own” weaving a dizzying path through several melodic movements, “Dark Driving” moving their progressive style forward with a series of ultra-catchy alternative-rock hooks, and the title track bringing their sound back down to earth (to some otherworldly tropical paradise, no less) while keeping things expansive with seductively strange guitar squeals and a mountainous mid-song crescendo. If their last e.p. suggested there were endless roads for this band to travel, this one narrows it down: Cave In were headed for the big time.

Before we start to unpack the songs on Antenna, (2003, B+) I want to address my personal theory as to why this would-be major label breakthrough failed: I think Cave In just weren’t angry enough for the mainstream rock audience at the time. The early metallic hardcore material communicated basically nothing BUT rage and bile, but ever since the move toward melodic modern space-rock, the emotional tenor of the songs became much brighter and more positive in tone. And in 2003, that sort of easygoing, shiny/happy mood and feel was about as unfashionable as a rock band could get. FM radio rock was still pretty much still on some nu-metal hangover, bands like Linkin Park and Evanescence were still inordinately huge, and the chances of a band like Cave In changing the entire landscape all by themselves was nil. Incubus and Hoobastank could sort of get away with having some happier songs, but that was about it. In spite of the clear, radio-friendly production and abnormally straightforward songwriting, Cave In would have seemed out of place if they had succeeded.

But they didn’t, and we’ll never really know why. Armed with a touring gig opening for Foo Fighters and a fresh set of anthemic hook-laden songs, that burrowed melodies deep into the mind without betraying the band’s basic identity, they had everything going for them – they even looked good. But no matter how accessible the sound was, the emotions they were conveying just weren’t cool. Post-9/11 rock music was pretty much all the dark, dreary likes of Staind/Trapt/Puddle of Mudd, and other typos. Maybe if they’d spelled their name “Kave Inn” they would’ve had a chance. But seriously folks, the only songs that even attempt a darker mood on Antenna are “Youth Overrided” and the closer “Woodwork”4. In fact, I’d accuse “Penny Racer” and “Anchor” of being, if anything, TOO happy. Cave In are on some serious positive tip on this album, from the free-floating delirium of “Lost In The Air” to Stephen chanting “True romance, true romance, true romance after all” on “Joy Opposites”, and mostly all of it works. This music is clearly intended to lift the spirits and inject some positive energy back into the dwindling lifeblood of the rock genre. Even the obligatory-feeling epic-length track “Seafrost” doesn’t so much become a slog as it does sort of wander around not really sure how to resolve itself. The only big drawback of the album is that it’s the first time the band becomes derivative – “Stained Silver” very blatantly lifts the chords from Radiohead’s “Everything In Its Right Place”, and the verse melody for “Inspire” is far too reminiscent of “Magnified” by Failure, a song Cave In themselves covered not too long ago. But other than that, this is commercial radio rock done right. If you’re gonna sell out, please do it like this. Except don’t, because Cave In did, it totally failed, and they were dropped from RCA in short order.

Perfect Pitch Black (B+), released on the band’s original label Hydra Head in 2005, is a weird release. Half leftover material from a hypothetical follow-up to Antenna, half “rekindling the spark we once had” band renaissance, it was the sound of Cave In picking up the pieces and starting over again after going through the major-label meat grinder and coming out the other side with essentially nothing to show for it. There’s a pretty clear delienation here between Cave In’s accessible period and their new/old/revived and updated sound, with “The World Is In Your Way”, “Off To Ruin”, and “Paranormal” deftly switching between Stephen’s melodies and Caleb’s growls, and “Droned”, “Down The Drain”, and “Screaming In Your Sleep” capturing the very last vestiges of Cave In attempting to be a marketable band. The problem with the album is that the songs in the latter category generally sound much less inspired than the songs in the former group. “Down The Drain” is a deliciously psychedelic piece of My Bloody Valentine-meets-Spacemen 3, but “Tension In The Ranks” is crying out for an actual chorus, and “Ataraxia” could have used any non-wordless vocals at all. On the other side, “Trepanning” is easily the heaviest, most aggressive thing this group has recorded since the first album, and overall there is the sense here that Cave In are ready to move on from their disastrous mainstream stint, and get back to doing what they once did best – pushing the boundaries of metal, hardcore and progressive rock with finely-honed songwriting, smoothly-vocalized tunes, and out-of-this-world sonic experimentation.

But it wasn’t to be. Cave In went on indefinite hiatus in 2006, its members splintering into groups like Pet Genius, Zozobra, Clouds, and Stephen Brodsky’s Octave Museum, each one emphasizing a different side of Cave In (either the heavy side, the pop side, or the weird/psychedelic side) without ever achieving the versatility they had together as a unit. By the time they regrouped, their days of expanding the limits seemed to be behind them. The Planets Of Old (B-) e.p., released in 2009, and the full-length White Silence (B), released in 2011, both essentially reduce Cave In’s sound to a predictable affair, albeit one inevitably shot through with moments of visceral energy and meticulous, unorthodox composition. I’m not sure exactly how to articulate what I feel is missing from these recordings other than “The band’s hearts just don’t seem entirely into it.” Band members disagreeing over musical direction can be fruitful – when it’s not, you wind up with something that feels a bit disjointed and compromised.

Cave In are pretty much done now (as far as anybody can tell), having played their most recent shows in 2015, its members currently involved in other projects, or none at all. Sadly, bassist/vocalist Caleb Scofield passed away on March 28, 2018 in what sounds like an absolutely horrific auto wreck, precluding the possibility that the band’s classic lineup would ever reunite. It was a hell of a run they had there, and I still feel like their full potential was never quite realized. There are times when I still hear a song from their 2000-2005 period and think “This is it. This is what that decade should’ve sounded like.” Sometimes vision, talent, experience, ability, and consistency simply aren’t enough – bands need support, too. I guess that’s the takeaway here, other than “Timing is everything” – we need to rally around our favorite artists, sing their praises, spread the good word, and above all, give them our money. I did what I could for Cave In – I even bought the “Shapeshifter/Dead Already” cassingle (A-) at the show when I saw them in concert, in 2005. If it were ever possible for them to come back, I’d be right there again, like they were never gone. Because they will have always deserved better.

Dedicated to Caleb Scofield, 1978-2018. RIP