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On Ruin: Waking up to Craw and a world beyond metal

Author’s note: This piece concerns my favorite band of all time, a little-known, now defunct and pretty much unclassifiable Cleveland group called Craw. They aren’t a metal band, but any fan of forward-thinking heavy music needs to know them. (IO readers might recall their fourth record—and only one still in print — Bodies for Strontium 90, available from Hydra Head.) With the approval of the ex-members, I’ve channeled my two-decade Craw obsession into a newly launched Kickstarter project; the goal is to reissue the band’s first three full-lengths as a limited-edition vinyl box set. If you’re intrigued by what you read/hear below, click here to learn more.

— Hank Shteamer

“This record ruined metal for me… An independent (punk?) band with low hanging balls just destroyed an entire genre of music for one guy, me. All the macho bulls–t ‘metal’ bands who thought they were ‘heavy’ got owned. I don’t need the attitude, cloned styles and crunchy guitars, I need the power and freedom!”
—Steve Brooks (Torche, Floor) on Melvins’ Bullhead; Noisecreep

Steve Brooks was probably exaggerating when he wrote the above. Surely the guy has indulged in a bit of metal since he first heard Bullhead all those years back, no? Still, I know what he means when he writes of an impossible-to-classify indie band coming out of nowhere and T-boning his metal-centric value system. The same thing happened to me 20 years ago; the band in question was Craw.

Stream a selection of tracks from Craw’s first three albums:

In 1994, I was a high-school sophomore and a budding metal nerd. It was a good time to be one. I’d settled into a comfortable routine of watching and taping each episode of Headbanger’s Ball. Danzig had been my favorite band for a few years before I started tuning in; prior to that, it was Metallica, followed by Pantera. But Riki Rachtman opened a lot of doors. One week, he introduced the new video by Morbid Angel. I’m not sure if the music — a little song called “Rapture” — or the equally bestial visual sense of director Tony Kunewalder (R.I.P.) shook me harder. But I’d never heard anything so beastly. Within seconds, I was sworn to the black.

I wasn’t a particularly antisocial adolescent, but along with my tight-knit group of friends, I was trying hard to become one. I still remember a kid in trig class making fun of my Cannibal Corpse longsleeve and feeling at that moment that this was how it was supposed to be. If you wanted to be an extreme metal fan, you had to be willing to stand apart. But another band was about to come along and show me what standing apart really meant.

At that time, my hometown of Kansas City, Missouri, had a great metal/punk fanzine called FeH. I remember marveling at FeH‘s interviews with the likes of David Vincent, Chris Barnes and Glen Benton, and appreciating their smart-alecky humor; like IO and the contemporary metal blogosphere at large, FeH‘s writers weren’t afraid to poke fun at the music they loved. So one week, I was flipping through the review section, and I came across a little capsule write-up of a self-titled album by a band called Craw. I lost track of the issue years ago, but I still remember the tone of the review—the writer made a crack about how one might want to hide all one’s knives and other dangerous household objects before playing the record. Underneath the gag, though, you could tell he was generally unnerved by what he heard.

A few days later, I was at Best Buy with my friend Chris, shopping for new music. Yes, Best Buy. At that time, they carried a ton of independent product: the Roadrunner and Relapse titles I was hungry for, and the Dischord, Epitaph and Alternative Tentacles releases that captivated my more punk-minded friends. On that particular day, I entered the store and walked directly to the “C” section. After a quick browse, I saw the Steve Kasner painting reproduced at the top of this post.

By that time, I was pretty used to, and invested in, the shock imagery that went along with the heavy music I loved: the unambiguous Satanic regalia on the Covenant cover, that charming undead-porn scene that adorned Tomb of the Mutilated. Even the revolting severed head on the front of Brujeria’s Matando Güeros held a certain dark fascination. It was obvious that these Craw guys, whoever they were, were taking a different route into their listeners’ aesthetic brains. This was fine art, not pulp.

I flipped the CD over and found weird, evocative song titles like “Elliot” and “My Sister’s Living Room,” and a little three-line poem that referenced Walt Whitman. When I bought the CD and opened it up, I found that the band members were identified only by surname: Apanius, McTighe, McClelland, Brockway, Chastain. They sounded like the members of some secret (Scottish?) society — heroes of a steampunk graphic novel, hearty men from another time. I also saw a flood of cryptic text fragments: “Greed for jacked synapses,” “Strangest freaks of nature’s laws, here for ye we bring together,” “This ne’er happened to me in Iran.” Sorry, what?

I got home, headed up to my bedroom and closed the door. Craw was soon playing, and I was hard at work processing the simultaneous familiarity and otherness of what I was hearing. I recognized elements of metal. There were chugga-chugga, palm-muted guitars and the occasional anguished scream. But the dynamic range was unsettlingly vast; there were sudden silences and long, agonized crescendos that began at a sub-whisper. The rhythms weren’t built for headbanging; they stabbed at you awkwardly. The few lyrics I could discern were weirdly conversational (“I tried to break up with him / He destroyed the paint job on my car”). In contrast with the shock-and-awe frontal assault of a record like Covenant, this record was sniping at me, like an assailant I couldn’t see.

I told a few friends about Craw, but unlike much of the music that soundtracked our communal experience — which revolved around driving down dark suburban streets late at night, smoking cigarettes and blasting Clutch, Rage Against the Machine or another band conducive to that kind of cruising — Craw didn’t seem like the kind of record you just popped in and cranked up. So Craw became a private pursuit. Every time I listened, it was like I was feverishly dog-earing pages in a novel, scribbling notes in the margins: “This is significant; come back to it.”

Soon, Craw was all I wanted to hear, or talk or think about. The strange logic of these songs began to reveal itself. The vocalist, this McTighe character, didn’t sound macho or pissed; he sounded goddamned disturbed — whining, shrieking, sneering. The total package was so outlandish yet so rigorous. (See “405” above — the first Craw song that really grabbed me by the throat.) This music was clearly the product of five musicians thinking hard, and working even harder to get it all right.

Before Craw, I knew how it felt to eat/sleep/breathe a certain kind of underground music. What I was slowly realizing, though, was that in comparison to Craw, metal was a known territory; there was a ready-made iconography of upside-down crosses and cartoonish gore; there were larger-than-life antiheroes and even a weekly network TV show that fans could rally behind. However far off the pop radar they were at the time, bands like Cannibal Corpse and Morbid Angel fit snugly within a subgenre. What they did had a name. What Craw was doing had no name, at least not one that I knew. Craw was simultaneously the most impressive and the most truly esoteric art I’d been exposed to up until that point—and no amount of listening seemed to dispel the mystique.

Fortunately, I didn’t have to wait long to see Craw live. In May of 1995, they came to town and played a small Kansas City club called the Foundry. There couldn’t have been more than 15 people at the show besides my two friends and me. The Craw guys were all hanging out by the pool table beforehand. They were a motley bunch, startlingly un-metal — or un-anything, really. Joe McTighe (it turns out these guys actually did have first names) was tall and smirkingly handsome, short-haired, wearing wingtips and some sort of feathered cap. One of the guitarists, Dave McClelland, had a frizzy afro, glasses, a leather jacket emblazoned with the Black Cat firecrackers logo. The friendliest of the bunch was the drummer, Neil Chastain — a thin, wiry guy. We peppered him with questions, mostly about Joe, whom we were afraid to address directly.

Craw began to play, and the stimuli rained down all at once: McTighe transforming before our eyes into an outsider griot, snarling his elliptical narratives; Chastain and guitarist Rockie Brockway pounding out accents in furious unison; McClelland off in a whole other orbit, conjuring a whirring web of pure-texture sound. It was all scarily visceral but totally disconnected from the chest-thumping theatricality of the metal bands I’d seen up till that point. Just like on record, Craw live was so itself. I remember glancing over at my friend Chris between songs, the two of us exchanging looks somewhere between fear and bliss.

Craw released two more full-lengths in the few years after Craw (Lost Nation Road and Map, Monitor, Surge) and each was its own astonishment — as ambitious and overwhelming as the debut, but distinct in its moods and themes. They never backed down from the resolute extremity of their ideas, from either — to paraphrase the guitarist Sonny Sharrock — the beauty or the terror.

Craw turned out to be a potent gateway drug. As my friends and I progressed through high school, we continued to keep tabs on metal, but we discovered a world of other intense, intelligent underground music that spoke to us — Hoover, Don Caballero, Dazzling Killmen, the Jesus Lizard, June of 44. We pored over personnel listings and label catalogs, and made our way to names like Slint, Tortoise, Will Oldham, even John Fahey. Heaviness was no longer a prerequisite. We were just taking a look around.

And it’s continued that way for me, right up until the present. One difference is that now, I write about music for a living. (The first piece of writing I published outside my middle-school paper was a 1997 review of Map, Monitor, Surge for the Cleveland fanzine CLE; I later wrote up that record, Lost Nation Road and Bodies for Strontium 90 for AllMusic.com.) My tastes have broadened immensely since high school; I’m now closer to that classically dull-on-paper “little bit of everything” zone: all kinds of jazz and contemporary indie stuff, plenty of choice ’60s and ’70s rock and, yes, a lot of metal.

But still, 20 years on, I reserve a special place on the shelf for Craw. Did they ruin metal for me? Or all other music, for that matter? Of course not. But what they did do is show me that creativity didn’t have to be a color-by-numbers game, that you can embrace certain core features of a style—volume, density, tightness, virtuosity—but jettison just as many others—a stock vocal approach or instrumental technique, familiar modes of dress or graphic design. Your sound, your overall presentation, can be as you as you want it to be. Sure, there’s little glamor in that, maybe even—as in Craw’s case—the risk of near-total obscurity. But much like fans of the far better known Melvins, those Craw did touch accessed a power and freedom that they couldn’t locate anywhere else. Maybe, in a glass-half-empty sense, that amounts to some kind of ruin. But it seems more like enlightenment to me.

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