Cave In’s breakout album turns 20
When Nirvana released Nevermind in 1991 I was eighteen and livid. My favorite semi-local band had gone soft, “sold out” to a major label, and lost its edge on stage. But when Boston post-hardcore act Cave In made the same move a decade later, I was rooting for them.
Being a left coaster, I got on board with Cave In when their first proper album, Until Your Heart Stops was released by Hydrahead Records in 1999. The blandness of nineties rock had pushed me to seek the grout of the underground, especially metalcore bands that sounded like they smoked weed. Deadguy and Bloodlet were top of the bill, with Converge, Isis, and the fledgling Dillinger Escape Plan carving out their own niches in a quickly saturating field. Amongst that company Cave In didn’t sound terribly fresh to me, but they were young, talented, and brimming with potential.
That promise was fulfilled with the band’s sophomore album Jupiter. Guitarist, singer and primary songwriter Steven Brodsky had the solar system’s largest planet in mind for a while, finding musical inspiration in space and a growing collection of delay pedal guitar effects. Certainly there was outcry at the time because the leap from aggressive screamy mathcore to clean-sung, hook-laden space rock seemed vast. But listening back to the predecessor EP Creative Eclipses (1999) shows the band was shunning gravity well in advance.
“Jupiter” blasts off, the title track being an anthemic, gate-kicking clarion call. A driving riff sets the stage for Brodsky to sing along with guitar melodies that twist up like luminescent beanstalks. Very few bands are able to craft metal-based music that captures this sense of inspiration. Rush is one. Cave In is another. I don’t compare the two lightly.
Track two, “In the Stream of Commerce” was the first song written for the album that gave the band a clear sense of the direction it was heading. It’s also the song I absolutely hated on my first listen. But its weird melodies, breakdowns, falsettos, and psychedelic guitar sound got stuck in my head. On my second listen I stopped fighting my own prejudices and had an epiphany: “Oh, this is PROG!” Now it’s arguably my favorite song on the record—a prime example of exactly what the band was trying to do. Lyrics about the perils of the music industry and fan expectation are mulled over, with the final lines throwing caution to the solar wind:
“Keep your eyes on the road
You might be able to drive
Now you’re so lucky to be alive”
Mark my words; someday I will drive through the desert in a convertible flying car singing this song at the top of my lungs.
“The Big Riff” comes next and was still in the band’s live set when I caught a reunion show at Levitation fest in Austin last year. Many call this song their favorite, simply because it is the most overtly heavy tune on the album, and includes the most throat-shredding vocal performance. The lyrics nod toward the Icarus myth, but the band was too young–eyes still full of stars–to heed its own warning. Midway through the song settles into clean guitar strummed over precise rolling drums. Eventually the drama builds back to a crescendo with a guitar lead that would pair well with imagery of an astronaut popping a wheelie on a Harley while waving a NASA flag.
“Innuendo and Out the Other” is six minutes of unapologetic, tightly focused space prog. A common description of Jupiter on release was “this is what happens when a hardcore band gets obsessed with OK Computer.” Honestly the process was more gradual and complex than that, but you could still make a fine drinking game out of “spot the Radiohead-isms” when enjoying Jupiter. Considering Radiohead and Tool were the prime movers of Top 40 prog at the turn of the millennium it made sense for any forward thinking group poised for success to pay attention to the trails they’d blazed.
“Brain Candle” is another dose of giddy metalized power pop, with Brodsky begging for someone or something to light his fuse. In a better world, this song would have been all over the radio, rubbing shoulders with Supergrass. A few years later Cave In would end up touring with Foo Fighters and Muse. But when I caught Jupiter tour in Portland they were headlining over Thrones and a forgettable local emo band.
At nine minutes, “Requiem” is the longest song on the album. Gentle arpeggios and soft vocals provide a ramp. Restrained tribal tom patterns elevate the energy a notch, sounding a bit like early Sunny Day Real Estate. A series of heavy riffs and emotional plateaus follow and it’s here that I’ll note the sterling production by hardcore stalwart Brian McTernan.
Jupiter boasts a powerful full spectrum sound. J.R. Conners’ drums are delightfully natural and unprocessed, just a bit tighter than the Albini approach. What really stands out about the recording of this album is that the band made it rather quickly, not bothering to spoil the mix by laboring over it for months. For such a conceptually dense work it all sounds like something they could easily reproduce live. The songs always pretty much sound like two guitars, bass, drums, and vocals. Any other heavy lifting is accomplished with stomp boxes, rather than leaning on a million layers of tracks.
VIDEO: Cave In Live December 2000
“Decay of the Delay” is the only instrumental on the record, which makes this Explosions in the Sky-style psych jam the one I’ve DJ’d the most. I do like Brodsky’s vocals, but someone unfamiliar with Cave In walking into the room might wonder for a second if they’re hearing Green Day or some other hi-fi punk band with clean male singing. I no longer consider Cave In to be a guilty pleasure because they’ve more than proved their merit over the long haul. But they’re still an anomaly in that I don’t listen to any other bands that really sound remotely like them. Maybe they’re the middle ground between Rush and Unwound, but that’s pretty wide and fertile terrain to explore.
“New Moon” is the finale, kicking off with acoustic guitar, sounding like something off one of Brodsky’s solo albums. After several minutes this tune boils down to a series of contemplative triplets from bassist Caleb Scofield before absolutely erupting into a triumphant love song about an angel girl, a social butterfly, a mistress called the moon.
While the more backward, ball-dragging fans of early Cave In were appalled by Jupiter, many more listeners found it an ideal entry point. Critical acclaim was loud and near unanimous. Major labels started knocking, and by 2003 the band had released a far slicker follow-up on RCA.
So why was I okay with this trajectory when I was so hard on Nirvana? That has almost nothing to do with either band or their careers. It honestly says far more about my own development. The guys in Nirvana were a few years older than me; the kids in Cave In a few years younger. As a teen, I wanted Nirvana to remain a best kept secret for my friends and me to enjoy. In the early aughts, I saw Cave In’s potential and held hopes that they could cross over and reach the masses.
Though Antenna sold well, the overall experience didn’t really pan out for Cave In. They turned in demos that showed a heavier, less pop direction. RCA was not interested. After a short, hard ride the band was able to jump ship and splashdown back into the safe harbors of Hydra Head.
Though they broke up for a while, Cave In has continued to release new music, with Final Transmission (2019) being a collection of recordings they made with late Caleb Scofield before he sadly passed in 2018 after crashing into a toll booth.
Cave In never made a bad record, but they’ve also never quite recaptured the lightning in a bottle that was Jupiter. It was a time, a place, an age, a moment. Eight wonderful songs that were neither over nor under produced.
Like the great red planet, Jupiter will be here forever and I’ll never stop enjoying the ride.