Wrapping your head around something is a strange little idiom. While the search for understanding initially manifests itself as your mind engrossing a notion, when your obsession with that idea grows, the roles reverse and it envelopes you. This is all purely metaphorical, of course, but the abstraction really is appropriate, seeing as this concealing concept can affect you as a cloud: dampening your mood with stormy fixations or letting in the sunlight afforded by the subject of them.
For writer-by-way-of musician Hank Shteamer, it’s a little bit of both. When he first found out about Cleveland’s Craw as a teenaged metalhead, he was intrigued: drawn in by the metallic pummeling and down for the count as the complex band played dizzying circles around him. In the two decades since, he listened to the band’s four lengths—released between 1993 and 2002—countless times, never exhausting their appeal and constantly digging into their deeper layers. In that regard, the band has brought a lot of sunshine to his life, but on the other hand it’s plagued his search for similar bands, even while the now-music editor for RollingStone.com and drummer for STATS has surrounded himself by sound in all facets of his life.
“It was one of those things where I heard Craw, and I was like, ‘OK, well, I’ll go find some other stuff like this because I really like this,’” relinquishes Shteamer, who continuously tripped over his own words with excitement while talking about the band. “And then it’s been 20 years and I still haven’t found anything. I just don’t think that they really have peers.”
Unfortunately for more adventurous music fans, Shteamer’s peers who grew up listening to Craw are aging and the crew’s music—at one point offered for free in MP3 format on the then-active band on Craw.com—has been unavailable, save for the last album they released via Hydra Head Records: 2002’s Bodies for Strontium 90.
This hole in the noisy, mathy post-hardcore library, alongside Shteamer’s passion, prompted him to open a crowd-funding campaign to reissue the group’s three other records as a box set, which has since been aptly named 1993-1997. After a first campaign fell short of the goal, Northern Spy Records brought their expertise into the fold and a second Kickstarter helped realized the six-LP dream, which will be accompanied by a 200-page book telling the band’s story. It's on sale December 11 (you can order it here).
For all intents and purposes, that story is pretty typical. As Shteamer puts it, “They were an independent band who worked really hard, made extremely esoteric music, toured really hard for a couple of years, didn’t really catch on and just kind of quietly broke up. Narratively, this is not a band that has some fantastic story.”
Fortunately, aurally it’s a much different tale. Audio engineer Steve Albini, who recorded the three albums this collection amasses the band via an email interview. “The way the two guitars worked was a really distinctive facet of Craw’s music. I always liked that they were willing to let one of the guitars run interference on the riff without apologizing for it, and the vocals didn’t always have to stay in lock-step with the phrasing of the band.”
In a world of the strictly defined roles of lead- and rhythm-guitarist, Craw six-stringers Rockie Brockway and David McClelland were closer to structure and texture-guitarists, respectively. The environments they crafted were both complemented and contrasted by the playing of their bass players (there were two through the years) and drummers (three) before being deconstructed entirely by vocalist Joe McTighe, whose voice leapt from primal screams to subtle whispers and bounced between whining sass to mumbling murmurs. The howls were more brooding than brutal, trading the technique of a death metal growl or black metal screech for the animalistic sound of a man losing his mind. It was the perfect accompaniment to his lyrics, influenced by stories culled from media, science or life itself. Brockway looks back on his old bandmate with admiration. “Joe, for my money, I don’t think I’ve seen a lyricist and frontman like that, since or before.”
As Shteamer explains, even to an outsider the performers and songs’ parts—disparate as they may seem—all had a purpose. “The music has an emotional arc to it. Things happen for a reason, compositionally. It might not be like a verse-chorus-verse-chorus thing, but parts have a reason for moving into one another; the dynamics have a smart kind of contrast to it, and the albums have an arc over time. They managed to find a coherent language. It was a language that was all their own, and it wasn’t just some gibberish.”
Though Craw were fluent in that language from the get go—1993’s self-titled LP is distinctly their own sound—the band’s vocabulary grew over time. In the same way a simpler vocabulary might require a speaker to blab on longer to deliver the same message a more well-spoken person could, that album was over-filled with riffs and ideas to its 69-minute brim.
“We pretty much just shot our load at that point, you know?” admits Brockway of the album that the well-rehearsed band and Albini recorded in five days of 16- to 20-hour marathon days. From this crushing embryo, however, came the seed for its follow-up, 1994’s Lost Nation Road, which slightly toned down the heavier side in favour of more heavily complex arrangements. How complicated could things really get? Well, Brockway proclaims that one of the album’s songs doesn’t repeat a part until 73 notes deep. Getting to the point of being able to perform that material was what McClelland calls “a strength exercise.” The band practiced, practiced, and practiced to perfect the album, which used no studio trickery that a lesser band might use to manipulate their sound. Analog effects, such as singing into a snare drum, were used on the vocals and saxophones added more to the already dense soundscape.
They reined in on their sound for 1997’s Map, Monitor, Surge, eliminating any extraneous instruments and, according to McClelland, loosening things up thanks to new drummer Will Scharf’s more-metal, less-classically trained beats. Albini, who co-engineered this release with Bill Korecky at the latter’s Ohio studio, explains that’s not an uncommon trajectory for a band. “Once you get good at playing your music to a pattern, you start to trust the music and ignore the pattern. It’s a feature of most bands’ development over time that they either get less rigid in their approach, or they stagnate.”
The disappointing reality of that statement is that, regardless of avoiding the fate musically, the band’s career started to stagnate and fizzle soon after, with McClelland leaving the band before 2002’s final release: the aforementioned Bodies for Strontium 90, which continued down the simplified path to arrive at what Brockway calls “a bashing kind of rock record.”
Photo by Anastasia Pantsios
Through it all they managed to hold on to a something distinctly Craw. Though that X-factor might not be for everybody, Shteamer insists it’s there, saying, “You can listen to Craw and you can hate it, but you can’t say that they didn’t have a sound. They came up with something and they saw it through to the utmost.”
The funny thing with the band’s extremist tendencies is that, though it set them apart, it also likely caused them from surpassing cult status. They accept full responsibility for that, though, with Brockway suggesting, “The music was probably a lot more to digest than what most people were willing to spend time and energy on. We kind of created all the challenges ourselves that would essentially alienate us from really being able to make a living out of being musicians just because of what we wanted to do artistically. We’re just kind of digging our own grave, to a degree,” finishing the statement with a laugh. This sense of humor about the whole thing exhibits that he’s certainly not bitter over their inability to break through to a larger audience like many of the bands they played with: Helmet, the Jesus Lizard, the Melvins, et. al.
Derek Hess, esteemed artist and one-time booker at Cleveland’s Euclid Tavern, where the band played some of their early shows and continued to occupy frequently throughout their stint, explains in the box set's 200-page book that their inability to break through the proverbial glass ceiling “wasn’t for lack of trying.” He says the band stuck out from the get-go thanks to an air of professionalism they possessed, which extended to every aspect, including recording and performance.
The live side of things was where Craw really shined; Shteamer event went so far as to say the shows he witnessed changed his life. He paints a picture of what he saw when the band came through his then-home of Kansas City, Kansas.
“When you saw them on stage, it was like they were a little tribe. They were so in-sync, but every person in the band had a different character for what they were doing. I think I was talking about the two guitar players: Rockie having this extremely tight, riff-oriented rhythm guitar thing and Dave was playing this totally odd, shrill, kind of like textural sound painting over top of it, and then the vocalist, Joe McTighe, he was honestly like terrifying to watch. It’s hard to even describe. He was sort of this non-descript looking guy, and he didn’t have any of the typical qualities of a metal or hardcore vocalist, but when he would perform he would go into these strange contortions and kind of like crouch down; he just looked like he was possessed. I think the characters of the songs—he’s acting out scenarios. He’s playing a character in these songs, and you would see him completely just go inside that and channel these strange emotions. It was just overwhelming. It was what you hear on the record but amplified to almost an unbearable level of emotion and cathartic energy. I don’t know how to describe it. If you can hear the records and hear how tight they are and how overwhelming they are on the records, they were just that much more that on stage. It was literally SCARY. You know how people—I’m not old enough to have seen Black Flag in like 1982, but when people talk about that they describe it as if it was scary: The energy of those shows was almost too much to handle. That’s how Craw was for me.”
It’s the kind of thing you’d have to see to truly understand; unfortunately, not that many people did see them in the grand scheme of things. Though they’d do really well in their home base of Cleveland, Ohio, where they’d regularly open for bigger touring bands and headline successful shows of their own, the open road was a lot less cordial. The problem according to McClelland was that the band would appeal to maybe five people within driving distance of any given show. Furthering that problem was that they had to FIND those five people in the pre-Internet or social media days, meaning they couldn’t write on a post-hardcore message board or on a carefully crafted Twitter to reach fans. When they did find enthusiasts, they’d end up playing in their living rooms, basements, garages or art spaces: such is the reality of a DIY band. From bad turnouts, to freak snowstorms, to booking shows in college towns the day school vacation started, to playing in a club on pool tournament night, the band had more than their fair share of misfortunes while traveling.
The bad luck continued in other facets of the band. Choke, Inc., the band’s label for their first two releases, folded, forcing Brockway to release the third on his own label, Cambodia Recordings. Outside of the minimal resources afforded by Choke and the home base help of Hess, the band never had an outsider officially sticking up for them until Hydra Head Records, by which point it was essentially too late. There was no manager, no booking agent and no money.
But if impressions were currency, Craw might have been rich. Sure, the numbers might not have been overly high, but the levels at which these marks were made speak volumes. Similar to Shteamer’s story, Mike Hill of blackened post-metal band Tombs was affected to similar degrees, with the music helping shape the music he makes and has made in other bands, such as noisy metallic hardcore merchants Anodyne. “As a band and as maybe the creative freedom that band [Craw] had—because they wrote pretty far-out material and you had to have pretty open mind to write that kind of work—so that openness to creativity is still influencing me.” That exploratory attitude was evident to Hill from the first time he saw Craw in 1995 or 1996 when his band at the time, Otis, played with them. He was immediately impressed by “how completely insane the arrangements of their material was [sic].”
However, those were the 90s and things were different back then. Shteamer suggests that “heavy music has become so much more of a cottage industry,” citing the genres’ coverage by outlets such as Pitchfork and The New York Times as proof that metal and its many moons are being celebrated as a genuine art form. The journalist insists that the band were ahead of their time, opining, “Craw were that band that should have been celebrated in that way, but they were not around at a time when heavy music—thoughtful, unusual, creative heavy music—was being celebrated in that way.” Hill echoes that and adds that, in a way, they were also too early; if they had come later they could have fit in with bands such as the Dillinger Escape Plan, Deadguy, and Kiss It Goodbye, whose music they may very well have influenced; you can hear similarities in the bizarre angularities. Positing that Craw were underappreciated outside of musician circles, Hill claims, “Even if your average person wasn’t familiar with them, a band that person was into was definitely influenced by Craw.”
Hill thinks that intelligent reality might have been what held the band down. “They were too smart for the dumb kids and too dumb for the smart kids,” says the guitarist/vocalist, referring to their heavy side as something the more pretentious indie rock kids might have scoffed at. It kept their audience to a compact clique, which might have been for the better. As Hess suggests, “The bigger the audience gets, the dumber it get; and they weren’t a dumb band,” a sentiment he picked up from the Jesus Lizard’s Duane Denison.
Still, with this reissue, it’s not too late for legions of those looking for something a little left-of-center to come around. Hill recommends a slight shift in attitude, advocating, “I just think that if you’re into heavy rock music or metal or whatever, all you have to do is change your perspective maybe ten degrees and I think the whole universe of what Craw has to offer would open up to you.” In an entirely separate conversation, Shteamer also relates their music to angles, philosophizing, “If metal is ten degrees of an entire circle, then Craw was exploring the whole rest of the picture.” He adds that they treated heavy music with the same level of respect and care as one would a classical composition, or an abstract painting that sells for absurd amounts of dollars.
Similar to the way one of those paintings would coalesce many techniques and influences—from brush strokes to color palettes and what the artist saw with their eyes to what they saw in their mind—McClelland recalls the intersection from which Craw’s art came. “Craw is one of those bands that Venn diagrams were invented for because you could lay everything out, all of our different interests, and then there was kind of a circle where it all overlaps. And we just kind of worked from that circle.”
Craw with Steve Albini
They’ll be working from that circle once again in the near future, with reunion shows set to occur during March 11 and 12 of 2016 at Cleveland’s Grog Shop and Brooklyn’s Saint Vitus Bar. Although they were initially set for December 18 and 19 of this year, a medical situation within the band necessitated their postponement. The wait will be worth it. These sets will be more than your average, phoned-in reunion; instead, the band’s lineup will maintain a fluidity throughout, allowing them to switch between the members who played on each release, thereby giving the audience the closest experience to what they would have seen when the albums came out. Hell, they’re even trying to get the saxophone players who contributed to their sophomore full-length out. These will be less concerts and more chronological cacophony celebrating the shifts of a band whose lineup avoided stagnation nearly as much as the music they crafted.
Craw were never static throughout their career. Shteamer calls them “the ultimate progressive band because they’re literally pushing so far that it’s alienating to a lot of people.” It’s the kind of thing that’s inherent in music that pushes boundaries. And when boundaries are pushed, they never really revert to the way things were before; art is simply not elastic like that.
But art is something that celebrates history and the boundary-pushers who propelled it to where it is. While the band’s contribution kind of went under the radar the first time around, Brockway is curious to see the reaction it’ll get today with its reissue. “I think this is an interesting opportunity to re-inject what we did back into the circulation today and see if it’s received well,” says the guitarist.
As if raising over $22,000 wasn’t enough proof of Shteamer’s belief in the band’s legacy, the project spearhead is confident the band will get their just deserts.
“To me, Craw is an important part of that whole lineage [of weird, progressive, heavy bands]. If someone were writing a history of this, maybe they still would be like a foot note because they just didn’t make that much of an impact, but at least they would be a foot note; right now they’re not even a foot note because nobody remembers them and their records are out of print. I’m not trying to inflate their importance; I’m just trying to say that they were there at all.”
Bradley Zorgdrager is a writer based in Toronto. Follow him on Twitter.