Photos courtesy of City of Caterpillar
You couldn’t breathe in the early 2000s without sucking in a lungful of Kid A. Atmospheric, enigmatic, and inquisitive, Radiohead’s fourth album was a progressive proclamation that made its predecessor, OK Computer, seem like a punk record by comparison. On one hand, Kid A was claustrophobic. On the other hand, it was cosmic.
Something was in the air then. Practically every week in 2000 and 2001, a sprawling new opus materialized: Godspeed You! Black Emperor’s Lift Your Skinny Fists Like Antennas to Heaven, Explosions in the Sky’s Those Who Tell the Truth Shall Die, Those Who Tell the Truth Shall Live Forever, Mogwai’s Rock Action. Sigur Rós didn’t release an album in that two-year period, but 1999’s towering Ágætis Byrjun still cast a long shadow. And four months before Kid A came out, Sunny Day Real Estate reached for the stars with their grandiose 2000 swansong The Rising Tide, which owed as much to Genesis as it did to Rites of Spring. For many basement-show-going, post-hardcore kids like me who held a lingering affection for Sunny Day despite their jump to the majors, The Rising Tide—along with Kid A and the rest—marked a sea change. After a decade of bands sounding humble and downplaying their musical ambitions, epic was in.
Of course, 9/11 came along shortly after and gave an existential context to this enormous new music. Suddenly, it made sense to immersive ourselves in these vast, ethereal, majestically somber albums. Each in its own way conjured a kind of ambient apocalypse.
In May of 2001, I saw a band called City of Caterpillar. I’d never heard them before. All I knew was they were from Virginia and had members of pg. 99, a band I liked but that had yet to become semi-legendary. Their name, though, instantly intrigued me. I’d seen it printed on a flyer at Double Entendre, an indie record store in my hometown of Denver that specialized in post-hardcore and threw lots of great shows; in the late 90s and early 00s, I saw everyone from Joan of Arc to Milemarker there. The name “City of Caterpillar” evoked an arcane strangeness. That strangeness called to me. After so many years in the scene, where everyone’s heart was pinned to their sleeve and human emotion was treated as the final frontier, it felt good to tap back into the wider, weirder mystery of music. I had no idea what “City of Caterpillar” meant, and I didn’t want to. I just wanted to see what kind of band plays a DIY place like Double Entendre while having a name that sounded like it belonged to a French prog band circa 1973—the kind of band that might sing about mystical beings roaming the wasteland after the collapse of civilization.
I wasn’t entirely off the mark. City of Caterpillar took the stage of Double Entendre and turned it into a dystopia.
Denver heroes Planes Mistaken for Stars opened the show. Planes were in their prime in ’01; their masterpiece Fuck with Fire had just come out, and that’s a tough act for anyone to follow. City of Caterpillar erased my psyche of anything else that had or would go on that night. With my only point of reference being pg. 99, I expected City of Caterpillar to do something similar—that is, jump right into screamy stuff. After all, two members of pg. 99, Jeff Kane and Brandon Evans, were also in City of Caterpillar.
But no. They started out slow. At first it was a hum. Not the usual opening salvo of feedback that post-hardcore bands love to inflict, but a thrumming, almost tidal pulse of echoes and textures that oozed out of the air rather than sliced through it. It went on and on. It was unsettling. I remember looking over at the rest of the audience, maybe 40 or so kids, to see if anyone had any kind of reaction to this. Everyone looked dumbfounded. It’s not that we weren’t used to experimental music, only that these guys—skinny, tight-shirted, and with guitars slung low—seemed ready to rock, not cogitate.
The band’s meditative stasis finally gave way. When it did, it was like a thundercloud opened up in the room. Dissonance, drum blasts, ghostly implications of chords that swam in some inchoate sea of distortion: This shit was nuts. The longer it went on, though, the more their bizarre internal logic began to unfold. There were recognizable bits of melodic, emotive post-hardcore here and there. This wasn’t Glenn Branca. But the songs were long, some approaching ten minutes each, and within those lifespans it seems as though the entire geological history of some lost continent was being sonically represented. Onslaughts of seismic upheaval gave way to lulling plateaus of noise. Bassist Kevin Longendyke puked up his lungs while guitarists Evans and Kane threw their bodies into the gale. Evans sang too, tangling his voice with Longendyke’s in a language of destruction, renewal, entropy, and oblivion.
When the last wave of blurred riffs and chiming discord faded away, I felt like I’d just survived a flood. Barely.
The first, only, self-titled City of Caterpillar album came out in March of 2002. A lot had happened since the show I’d seen in May the year prior. Trying to find some kind of 9/11 message in every early-00s album is a fool’s errand; at the same time, how could a song title like “And You’re Wondering How a Top Floor Could Replace Heaven”—the name of City of Caterpillar’s opening track—not resonate that way? Especially when the song itself is eight and a half minute of hurricane-force rage, regret, and recrimination, propelled by drummer Ryan Parrish’s percussive catharsis? Not to mention lyrics like “And not a finger lifts ‘til it all turns to shit / And you all act like you’re impressed / You slouch now even further down as you’re wondering how a top floor could replace the heaven you once saw so well / We’ve built it all, we’ve made our gods, now we’re locked in ourselves”? What contemporaries like Sigur Rós and Explosions in the Sky were doing on a grander, more accessible canvas, City of Caterpillar were doing in the cracks, where the blood flowed.
City of Caterpillar usually gets pigeonholed as screamo, and that’s understandable. Most of the band’s handful of releases, their LP included, came out on Level Plane Records, home of screamo giants like Hot Cross and Saetia. I’ve got nothing against screamo. Hell, in the 90s, I saw just about every screamo band that came through Denver, if I wasn’t putting on their show myself. But calling City of Caterpillar a screamo album is like calling Kid A a Britpop album. It may have been a starting point, but City of Caterpillar strangled, and stretched, and mutated screamo until it reflected both the shattering chaos and the eerie quietude of its time. Call it post-screamo, if you must. Okay, maybe don’t do that. But the point stands: If ever there was one piece of definitive proof that screamo—a genre whose very name was a punch line for so long—could encompass an era as completely and compellingly as the biggest rock band in the world, City of Caterpillar was it.
The album is getting reissued on vinyl this month after being out of print for years, and it makes sense that it’s not drawing the kind of attention that, say, the new Radiohead album is. Few ever heard City of Caterpillar, and the band broke up without fanfare in 2003. Of its members’ many intriguing projects over the years—Malady, Haram, Ghastly City Sleep, Iron Reagan, Highness—only Darkest Hour, the band Parrish also once drummed for, found any kind of larger success. But where the latest cycle of Radiohead nostalgia, reexamination, and critical barrel-scraping reveals Kid A to be a great album whose glitch-happy tinkering actually sounds kind of dated these days, a record like City of Caterpillar stays vital. You can hear traces of it—whether they’re intentional or just extensions of the zeitgeist—in everything from Dead to a Dying World’s eschatological onslaught to Deafheaven’s breathtaking cacophony.
The early 00s weren’t the end of an era or anything so corny. It was just a transition. Emo got massive. Post-hardcore became a buzzword. Those of us who helped build the scene in the 90s found it demolished—or so we liked to think. As it turned out, we’d simply been displaced, supplanted, just like we’d done to the scene before us. It wasn’t the end of the world. Or maybe it was. Maybe the end of the world happens every day, in a million tiny ways, only to be renewed without us noticing. Hardly anyone noticed City of Caterpillar when they were around. But those of us who did were lucky.
Not that you had to be there. From the otherworldly disorder of “And You’re Wondering How A Top Floor Could Replace Heaven” to the ritualistic crescendo of “A Little Change Could Go a Long Ways,” City of Caterpillar remains a monument to loss in the face of forces larger than ourselves, something we’ll never stop being in awe of. “Inhale, exhale, inhale, exhale,” goes the haunting yet reassuring chant in the middle of “Maybe They’ll Gnaw Right Through,” the album’s layered, loop-heavy closer. It’s still a good thing to remember.
Jason Heller is on Twitter - @jason_m_heller