by Tom Alexander (@___alexd)
Connecticut is a weird place to be. Between the giant markets of Boston and NYC, the state doesn’t have a centralized identity in the same way that its neighbors do. Nor does New Haven have the same kind of identity that, say, Philadelphia, Long Beach, Seattle, or Manchester. So even though there are several great bands kicking around in Connecticut, it’s hard to gain traction without that easy genre identifier. Crag Mask, in a lot of ways, embodies that problem; they’re much too sludgy to be “indie rock,” but they’re also far too melodic to be “metal.” Don’t fault them for not fitting neatly into a genre category. They’re here to chew bubble gum and open up the pit, and they’re all out of gum.
Bend is their second album after 2017’s Loom, and it’s their first with multi-instrumentalist Zayne Couch. With Couch in the line-up, Crag Mask seamlessly integrates lead guitar, backing synths, and even slide guitar (at times) into the band’s gothic grunge. Don’t let that information fool you though – Crag Mask maintains the thick wall of sound from their earlier work, with Zack Abramo’s guitar and Phil Lord’s bass simultaneously skull-crushingly heavy. Chalk the heaviness up to shared musical influences if you’d like, but it’s hard not to consider that Abramo spends time playing bass for art-punks Vundabar and bassist Lord engineered the record. Bend is dark, but it’s not pessimistic. Crag Mask’s music inhabits a world that is always nighttime after a long day’s rain, and Abramo’s lyrics frequently play with the objective correlative, detailing shards of memories or perceptions. While those lyrics can be slippery, vivid, and deliciously ambiguous, the best parts of Bend come out of the frank, clear lines of “give it a fucking rest” in “Flesh Raft,” or “… all the things I can accomplish / with music and shit” in opening “Bend,” or the bulk of the frustrated (and excellent) “Secret Plane.” It’s not the vulgarity that makes these moments memorable, it’s that they feel so urgent that Abramo needs to sidestep the poetry.
One of the most impressive things about Bend is how nimble the songwriting is. Listen to the transitions; the band is able to get from points A to B in clever ways that never sound fussy or overly technical. Keys shift and time signatures change, and if you aren’t keeping a close watch, you won’t even notice. Instead of barreling through the arrangements, Crag Mask quite literally bend to get from verse to chorus, or chorus to bridge. Jason Rule’s drumming goes a long way to facilitate this – he pounds the hell out of the skins but is able to turn on a dime. The record is punctuated by a few pieces of ambient drone (“The Gardener,” “I Have Not Dug The Hole Deep Enough,” the opening of “Flesh Raft”) that serve as moments of respite between the looming guitar riffs.
Devoid of any easy genre, the best way to describe Bend is “heavy,” “melodic,” and “restless.” Using those same descriptors, you could probably argue that Slint or Pile embody those same adjectives too, yet Crag Mask don’t really sound like either of those bands, and that brings us to where we started. Crag Mask don’t quite fit into any easy record store categories, and for them that’s an asset. Bend is so good that it doesn’t have to “find” a discrete audience: it will make one for itself. Bend will appeal to indie rockers looking for a little teeth in their music, and it’ll satisfy the head-banging itch for anyone looking to get loud.