by Glennon F. Curran
“This is the inheritance that will never be passed down,” sang Joe McTighe in 1994. Fortunately, life will not imitate art in this instance, because musical culture will no longer be denied a vital—if obscure—aspect of its inheritance.
Northern Spy Records has re-released the first three full-lengths from now defunct post-hardcore band, craw. The box set— titled 1993-1997— contains 1993’s Self-Titled debut; 1994’s Lost Nation Road; and 1997’s Map, Monitor Surge. All three have been out of print for nearly two decades. No more, thanks to Hank Shteamer and 192 other people contributing $22,682.00 in a crowd funding campaign that made this re-release a reality. Shteamer’s claim is that craw is an essential part of rock music history, and he spearheaded this campaign in an effort to further that claim. The linchpin of the release is the inclusion of a 200-page retrospective book published by Aqualamb. The book centers around an oral history of craw presented through interviews with band-members and secondary characters. The book is organized into 17 chapters that track the band’s roots, tenure, and legacy. It also contains photographs, lyrics, art, tour-posters, scribbles, show fliers, and a bevy of other craw-related relics.
This box set is the definitive documentary of craw, a band that emerged from the post-hardcore underground of the early 90s. This era is often reduced to the success stories of a handful of bands and record labels in areas like DC, Seattle, or Chicago. In the hegemony of cultural success, relevant contemporaries are often lost to the received narrative, despite the fact (or in craw’s case perhaps because of the fact) that they broke boundaries and set challenging precedents within the artistic zeitgeist. craw helped define the local identity of Cleveland underground at a time when changing musical tides opened new territory for rejuvenation and exploration. In their time, though, craw struggled to register in the musical consciousness beyond Cleveland. This box set is a giant leap towards changing that history, as it attempts to re-inject an important but largely unacknowledged body of work back into the universe. This collection will allow craw to extend its influence to the musicians and audiences that missed them the first time around.
craw is a band’s band. They are heavy, though they purposefully thwart classification. At its foundation, craw was made up of highly skilled musicians (some of them formally trained) who approached composition with the intention of breaking down musical boundaries. The result is that craw’s music is complicated, and often presents itself as a challenging listen—probably a central reason for their lack of mainstream success. There is something self-consciously cerebral about craw that differentiates them from their contemporaries. They had an almost manic focus on meticulous, complex composition and irregular musical arrangements.
Their penchant for the abstruse manifests itself in numerous ways. Dave McClelland’s guitar playing is searing, often functioning more like a vocal or a synthesizer, and re-contextualizing the songs amidst the hard rock riffing of the rhythm section. McClelland’s playing falls somewhere between that of Thurston Moore (Sonic Youth) and Robert Fripp (King Crimson). Joe McTighe’s lyrics are equal parts academic and story telling. He persistently drew on literary and scholarly sources as part of his dedicated process for writing lyrics, often using complex phrasing to describe character driven socio-emotional phenomena. His vocal delivery wavers between bleak poetic recitation and dystopian battle cry. Neil Chastain’s drumming and Rockie Brockway’s guitar playing are precise yet often unsettling because of the experimentation with time signature and arrangement.
The band’s line-up changed several times, swapping Chris Apanius (bass on the first record) for Zak Dieringer, and eventually Neil Chastain (drums on the first two records) for Will Scharf. These switches brought about noteworthy chemistry changes that help define the different sounds of the albums in the set: Dieringer helped transition craw to its technical apex in Lost Nation Road, while Scharf added an intangible chaos on Map, Monitor, Surge.
The first record (self-titled) is less experimental than the others. It is described in the book as an attempt to document years of early material written while the band was still discovering itself; and it sounds that way. While interesting, it is somehow less definitive. Lost Nation Road and Map, Monitor, Surge achieve something more brilliant. Each of these records is an artfully crafted, compositional masterpiece in its own right; and both deserve a careful listen.
There are more noteworthy musical moments than can be covered in this space, but I will mention two that really stuck with me. First, Lost Nation Road’s “Botulism, Cholera & Tarik” is a one-of-a-kind mixture of bleak post-punk and free jazz (featuring the horn playing of Matt Dufresne and Marcus DeGrazia, who also appear on the similarly awesome track, “All This Has Made Me”). There is really nothing that sounds like it, and one gets the feeling that the aesthetic of that one song defines an entire genre that has yet to be discovered. Second, Map, Monitor, Surge’s string of related one-minute songs (“shorties,” as the book refers to them) are maybe the best example of pure, condensed “craw” in a single serving. I do not know exactly what “craw” means as a musical adjective, but I know it has something to do with what’s going on in those songs; a three minute string of musical vivisection titled "Killer Microbes Devour Cleveland," "New Plastics Diet Alters Man’s DNA," and "Parasitic Dad Evades Biocops". In the introductory notes of the book, Shteamer perfectly captures the essence of the “shorties” when referring to them as “sci-fi capers.” Although Post-Trash is excited to review this box set, Shteamer’s passionate introduction to the book is undoubtedly the definitive craw review.
Despite significant differences in line-up and approach, all of the records maintain continuity. Some of this can be attributed to Steve Albini, who engineered all three. Each recording demonstrates Albini’s bare-bones approach to documenting music, a style that complements the visceral nature of craw particularly well. Given his involvement, Albini is featured as a prominent secondary character in the booklet and history of craw.
It is clear that craw is one of those bands deserving of a special kind of reverence for carrying the torch into strange, new places, and doing something original. They can just as easily be placed on your shelf alongside artists like Mr. Bungle and John Zorn as they can The Jesus Lizard or the Melvins. Up to this point, the anomaly with craw is that you probably didn’t already have them on our shelf; now you can.