A Name By Any Other Band
Ruminations on the New Cerberus Shoal

I feel sort of like I’ve stepped backwards into a time warp. There’s a Bush in the White House, we’re about to go to war with Iraq, the economy’s in the shitter, and seven astronauts just died in a space shuttle explosion.

And you know what makes me mad about that last one? Everyone scrambling about and whining as if they’ve just realized that space exploration is dangerous. Think about this for a second. Astronauts willingly place themselves into a big metal tube that’s hurled at amazing speed through our atmosphere until they arrive in an airless, endless black space which contains no other humans, and then they trust that same metal tube to get them back, even though the temperatures and stress that tube encounters on its way through the atmosphere should kill them eight hundred times over. It’s a frigging miracle that every one of those people doesn’t die on these missions, and NASA ought to be commended for the dozens of times that they’ve got it right.

And for what? For knowledge, for exploration, for the chance to broaden our view of the universe just a tiny bit more. Astronauts don’t do this so that we’ll call them heroes, and if you don’t believe me, try to remember the names of all the crew members of the last three successful shuttle missions. Can’t do it, can you? They do this because they want to know, and because they believe that the knowledge they gain out there will perhaps help us all down here.

Basically, space travel now is just like air travel after September 11. It’s no more or less dangerous than it’s ever been, and the seven members of the Columbia crew knew that long before we did. Like the New York police officers and fire fighters, they accepted the risks and they did their jobs. They knew, in probably hundreds of ways that we didn’t and never will, how dangerous space travel is, and still they and dozens like them volunteered to sit in that flimsy metal tube and see what’s out there.

So, to the astronauts that made up Columbia’s crew: bravo, and thank you. To NASA: learn from this, and do everything you can to make future shuttles better and missions safer. And to our wacky government: the last thing these seven astronauts would want is to let their deaths end the space program. Space travel will never be safe, and that’s why those who choose to do it for the betterment of all mankind should be honored, and fully funded. Because right now, somewhere in America, there’s a kid who’s going to be the first person to set foot on one of the moons of Jupiter, or discover a cure for cancer on one of our space stations, or any number of other things that will never happen without a thriving space program. We owe it to the Columbia crew, the Challenger crew and all the others who’ve made space exploration the driving force of their lives.

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I’m not sure yet what I think of the new incarnation of Cerberus Shoal, but since the kind folks at North East Indie Records sent me their latest CD free of charge, I’m going to use this column to try to find out.

Some background first. Portland, Maine’s Cerberus Shoal is a band quite unlike any other, and their bizarre history reflects this. They are now on their third lineup, and their third sound, a complete change from their previous two. The first incarnation released two nifty albums: a self-titled slowcore thing and a more experimental affair called …And Farewell to Hightide. That record was my introduction to the band, and I still love it – its five lengthy tracks spin a web of guitars and pianos that sucks you in.

I met the Shoalers just as they were finalizing their second incarnation, one that included the three members of fellow Portland band Tarpigh. They all live in the same small house, and they’re all approachable, passionate guys, which came through in the music this incarnation made. After the lovely soundtrack CD Elements of Structure/Permanence, this Cerberus Shoal embarked on a musical journey that produced a stunning trilogy: Homb, Crash My Moon Yacht, and last year’s Mr. Boy Dog. The music on these discs all but defies description – chaotic yet perfectly arranged, ethereal yet propulsive, organic yet otherworldly.

And then the two bands split – amicably, of course. They still live in that same house, after all. Tarpigh has gone on to release two strange albums of percussive sculpture-songs (Monsieur Monsoon and Go Hogh Wild), neither of which reach the heights they scaled with Cerberus Shoal. And as for the Shoalers themselves, well, they’re pretty much a whole different band. Original guitarist Caleb Mulkerin, bassist Chriss Sutherland and drummer Tom Rogers have welcomed vocalists Erin Davidson and Colleen Kinsella, as well as writer Karl Greenwald, and come up with something far removed from the C-Shoal of old.

They’ve been rolling out this new sound slowly, as they’re obviously still forming it, but so far the new Cerberus Shoal has released about an hour’s worth of material, including their two-track EP Garden Fly, Drip Eye and the first two installments of their nifty split-CD series. It’s pretty rare that I can have an hour of music on which to base my opinion and still not quite know what I think, but one thing I can say for sure is that this new band doesn’t have nearly the effect on me that the previous ones did.

Part of the problem is the increased emphasis on lyrics and vocals. If this band is going to keep calling itself Cerberus Shoal, which it has every right to do, then it’s going to invite comparisons with the previous bands, both of which produced long, winding instrumentals most of the time. The new Cerberus makes relatively short, clanging vocal pieces, with Greenwald’s lyrics often half-sung, half-chanted in an off-kilter three part harmony. The music seems to have incorporated a carnival atmosphere, and where previously there were waves of sound made by dozens of exotic instruments, now there is a somewhat lilting sparseness punctuated by percussive noises.

The band will likely disagree with me on this point, but the rules for writing interesting and enjoyable instrumental music are different from those for writing vocal music. Unlike the band’s previous vocal works, most of which used the voice like another instrument, it’s obvious that the lyrics for the new band’s songs were not intended for music, but written as poetry. Sometimes this works, and sometimes the band has to shoehorn syllables into its melodies. Since the sparse instrumentation allows the songs to be carried by the vocal melodies, this is quite noticeable – akin to what Alanis Morissette often has to do to be able to sing her unsent letters verbatim.

A good example of this is Cerberus Shoal’s latest offering, a split CD called The Vim and Vigour of Alvarius B. and Cerberus Shoal. Alvarius B. is the stage name of a guy called Alan Bishop, who (on the evidence of his two original tracks here) writes these caustic, acoustic-based folk ditties and sings them in a powerful, low voice. The concept for this split is terrific: Bishop and Shoal each recorded versions of each other’s songs, and then included the originals, so that listeners could hear the process of reinterpretation. It helps immensely that both artists seem impressed with and respectful of the other.

The two Alvarius B. songs (“Blood Baby” and “Viking Christmas”) are nasty and foreboding. (Sample lyric: “No two bodies are the same when you’re learning how to maim.”) Where Bishop casts these tunes in simple acoustics, however, Cerberus Shoal reinvents them from scratch, keeping the melodies but adding atmosphere and strange percussion. Strangely, these are my two favorite pieces from the new Cerberus Shoal, which says to me that my problem may be compositional, not tonal.

The C-Shoal original, “Ding,” bears that out. “Ding” is an 18-minute acoustic number (which Bishop covers in only nine minutes) that, sadly, repeats the same vocal melody for its entire running time – or, basically, until the band runs out of Greenwald’s words. The band does add layers as the song goes along, but not nearly enough to justify its running time, and they saddle the first seven or so minutes with an overdubbed typewriter noise that gets old after 30 seconds. It’s a shame, because the melody is quite lovely, but after 12 or so repetitions, it becomes tiresome.

My biggest gripe, however, is with the lyrics, which seem to be the only reason for stretching the tune to 18 minutes. “Ding” is an unconnected flow of phrases and mental dribbles, strung together for no other apparent reason than to seem poetic. Some examples: “Give gravy to the singing birds to shut them up, and focus on your diaphragm, or hold your nose in effigy to mom-ma.” “A ladder partakes of itself, climbing into arm safe apertures, convinced of its usefulness.” Or how about this one: “Hello amoeba, you are such timely beings, for swirls and shirts of face soft for hitting tree stems or short steps.” I will accept an 18-minute acoustic vocal piece if it’s got something to tell me, but as far as my unenlightened brain can tell, these are just words.

Which, again, would be fine, if the melody were captivating. Unfortunately, the new Cerberus Shoal seems to be halfway between writing vocal pieces and writing instrumental ones. The new songs are several steps above the first few offerings from this new group, however, and this is a band known for refining and redefining its sound. Hopefully, by the time this new Cerberus Shoal records its full-length debut, they’ll have finished their evolution into something different, yet as beautiful as the band that came before it.

Check out the band and all their recorded works at www.cerberusshoal.com. If you have to buy just one, get Homb, still a towering achievement.

Still no job. Will keep you posted. Next week, something more mainstream.

See you in line Tuesday morning.