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“Final Transmission”: Cave In’s Heartbreaking Testament to Caleb Scofield

cave in final transmission

Cave In‘s new album Final Transmission opens with its title track. The track itself is a voice demo, the grainy lo-fi quality of the recording familiar to anyone who came across a snatch of a riff while practicing and wanted to send it off to bandmates or just store it away for later development. The track is a simple acoustic guitar, raw and grainy and real, unpolished and imperfect; it’s a deeply melodic piece and meditative too, accompanied briefly by vocals outlining additional ideas for the finished song.

This was the final demo sent by departed bass player Caleb Scofield to his bandmates in Cave In, the last piece he would outline for the group before tragically passing away in a car accident in New Hampshire

One can’t tell the story of this record nor critique it reasonably without discussing both Caleb’s life and his passing. Cave In has, for the most part, been rendered redundant, its constituent members moving on to newer and more vital projects. Guitarist and vocalist Stephen Brodsky for example has found new critical and commercial life with prog/hard rock power trio Mutoid Man while Scofield himself found more time and productivity within Old Man Gloom and Zozobra. This was, by and large, a culturally acceptable thing; Cave In had come up in the same great Massachusetts metallic hardcore wave that gave us other great bands such as Converge and the early form of Isis, and their contributions with the more metallic Until Your Heart Stops and the more proggy Jupiter and Antenna had already made a lasting impact on the scene at large. Combining this with the fact that the band members had moved on to yet more cutting-edge contemporary heavy/progressive musical projects allowed Cave In to maintain a status as a fun and rootsy project, not dissimilar to Nate Newton’s work with Doomriders, another group that isn’t designed to push boundaries as much as celebrate peers and stylistic concepts that are comfortable and fun for its players.

This is, for the most part, what Perfect Pitch Black and White Silence were. As albums, they were good, satisfying, but not precisely necessary in the same way as those earlier records were. Again, this was more than fine; the role new Cave In material played in the scene and larger musical world was thankfully and deliberately limited to people who had played together since they were teens getting back together and making satisfying music together. So it seemed that their newest record, the one they were developing together in secret before Scofield’s death, was also to be; not a wild and evocative new statement of avant-garde intent, but another dose of childhood friends making fun rock music together. Of course, as we know, tragedy struck and changed the tenor of the proceedings.

This narrative drives Final Transmission because, for the most part, the music itself doesn’t. It is not that the songs are bad; far from it. The four members of Cave In, over the past two and a half decades, have learned each other well and know how to write in varied styles, from spacey prog tunes to hard rockers to metallic hardcore rippers and more, and come across as both convincing and sincere. It’s simply that Final Transmission doesn’t show any great leap forward in terms of storytelling or intent for the group. If one were to put aside the tragedy informing the record, it would simply be another Cave In record, a sign that the players were still friends and still found joy in each other’s presence, a lesson that means more to those that are either very young or very old and thus are better acquainted with the notions of how time puts distance between us all and the simple power of remaining fruitfully connected to those of our past.

But we can’t put this narrative away. After all, the group (wisely) decided its opening/title track should be an unadorned and unmodified phone demo of a set of riffs for a new song played by Scofield himself. Further, the record itself is a set of demos, with Scofield present on every track either by bass or guitar. Sure, the band probably arranged their own tracks for better presentation, but the record still feels loose and raw around the edges, deliberately imperfect both from a mixing and composition/performance standpoint. The intent with this record was clearly less to perfect those songs they were working on, songs they never got to perfect with Scofield present, and more to bare the raw joyous heart of the thing they’d all made together and wouldn’t get to make anymore, at least not without their dear friend.

If one were presented Final Transmission without any context, no previous records and no notion of the tragedy and no sense of the players involved, it would likely fail to impress; in that space, it is a fine record with a few seriously good songs, but one that lands closer to acceptable than to life-changing. But we do not live in the world without context; with those elements, it is a heartbreaking final wave goodbye to someone very dear to the people involved, a love letter to a lost friend.

The name itself signifies the record less as a perfect extension of the band and the image of where they would go next and more the last will and testament of Scofield. Its mundanity, good songs by good players making an overall good record, underscores painfully the way death snatches us up out of the blue. We are rarely afforded grandiloquent goodbyes; more often, we are here one day and gone the next. Final Transmission is a challenge to embrace the natural and ordinary, rock music as extensions of our real and daily selves instead of necessarily a grand mythology we ensconce ourselves with. It is the punk rock ethos of rock-as-reality instead of rock-as-dream. In this space, it’s hard not to be moved by the record, and it marks itself as the most necessary record of the band’s career since Antenna. That final track really rocks, too, by the way. A hell of a way to say goodbye.

Final Transmission released today via Hyrda Head Records.

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