In the extensive companion booklet accompanying 1993-1997, Northern Spy’s vinyl box set reissuing the first three previously out-of-print records by Cleveland post-hardcore outfit Craw, the band members muse over why they never connected with a bigger audience during their 14-year career. The answers they come back with range from “bad luck” to the theory that they had been aiming at the wrong audience. “We really wanted to be a hipster indie rock band,” says bass player Zak Dierenger before admitting, “we were definitely more metal than we thought we were.” Maybe there’s something to that. Craw’s convoluted song structures and unpredictable shifts in time signature were sure to confound anyone who came out to the show looking purely for power chords to bang their head to. Likewise, the college rock cognoscenti who may have been willing to dip their toes into some Fugazi or Slint might have been put off by the Metallica worship peeking out from behind Craw’s jazzy breakdowns and singer Joe McTighe’s tortured yelps.
But I can’t help but wonder if the biggest thing working against them was the fact that they were from Cleveland. At the time that Craw formed, the city’s punk scene was still in its infancy, and perhaps more damning, it’s a place that even now barely registers on the consciousness of the national music press, which seldom drags its eyes away from either coast long enough to notice what’s happening in flyover country. Whatever the reason, the relative obscurity under which the band toiled is a damnable shame. Normally when a label trumpets that their latest reissue is “not second best to everything you’ve already heard from their era” and assure you they “believe that these three LPs stand alongside acknowledged 90s masterworks,” you can bet they’re blowing smoke up your ass. In this case, it’s completely true. Anyone who owns a well-worn copy of Goat or Strap It On has got a continent-sized hole in their collection if they haven’t laid hands on these records.
Forming at Case Western Reserve University in 1988, Craw was a unit forged of unique personalities with competing yet complementary interests. In their first recording lineup, they had classically trained drummer Neil Chastain, who provided the theoretical framework for the odd time signatures the band was beginning to explore. Bass player Chris Apanius came from a jazz background and brought with him an interest in the space between riffs. The fundamental tensions that Craw embodied could be located in guitar players David McClelland and Rockie Brockway: Brockway, the metalhead who could play Iron Maiden albums front-to-back, and McClelland with his love for Sonic Youth and fascination with the textural capabilities of his instrument. But it was Joe McTighe who was the group’s true outsider. The rest of the band confesses to cajoling McTighe into becoming Craw’s singer, and there’s a certain reticence that comes through his contributions to the companion booklet that suggests maybe he never totally warmed up to the role. While his singing style owes a clear debt to David Yow, McTighe’s primary influences were literary: Joyce, Burroughs, Ballard, Batailles… maybe some Harlan Ellison? He was a wildcard in a band that was made up of nothing but wildcards to begin with.
Craw’s self-titled debut was the culmination of five years of writing and honing their craft. Of the three records in the box set, it’s the most straightforwardly “metal” but still chock-full of the labyrinthine dynamics that would remain the band’s hallmark. Opening track “Aphasia” was intended as a sort of mission statement for the band; McTighe’s desire was to divorce language from its comprehension, and toward that end, Craw would often fiddle with the volume of the vocals, burying them unexpectedly in the mix and rendering them unintelligible. This impulse to decentralize the lead singer mirrored a similar drive on behalf of the shoegazers a few years earlier, although Kevin Shields and Neil Halstead never barked their lyrics like a hydrophobic preacher. This technique contributes to the album’s overall sense of instability, McTighe’s delivery alternating between incoherent mumbling, tortured keening, and frantic shrieks, while the musical bedrock under his feet shifts and roils with each successive change in tempo and time signature.
While the material that made up Craw’s debut was a mishmash of songs written over the previous five years, it holds together as a unified work. Most of the time, the tracks bleed into one another, and given the protean nature of their compositions, it’s often difficult to tell just by listening where one song ends and another begins. Of the numerous highlights, “405” stands out. An early fan favorite, the song’s staccato intro resolves itself into a taut groove, pivoting at its midpoint into a slower, sludgier riff that gives McClelland a suitable canvas upon which he could scrawl his diffuse solo. Lyrically, the song centers around a survivor of a plane crash living in fear of her stalker ex-boyfriend. McTighe switches his narration between the parallel calamities with no segue, enhancing the sense of dislocation inherent in the music. Also worth singling out is “Cobray to the North,” a satirical look at our nation’s obsession with firearms (choice line: “It takes greatness like Miami Vice to increase sales of the Bren 10 Assault Rifle.”)
Lost Nation Road, recorded a year later, found the band expanding its sonic palette. Steve Albini (who recorded or co-recorded every album in this set) assisted McTighe with novel mic setups to capture his increasingly outrageous vocal tics. McTighe himself came to the recording session with milk crates full of homemade analog devices for altering his vocals, including a tube to which he affixed springs. You can hear its effects on McTighe’s muffled, shuddering screams on “Feesh Crick” and “Botulism, Cholera + Tarik.” Other innovations include the incorporation of tape collages, like the outro to “Lifelike” and “Shocklight,” and the no-wave skronk of “Botulism” and “All This Has Made Me.” There’s also an increasingly jazzy feel to some of the breakdowns; you can hear the band doing more with the moments of quiet than on their previous record, perhaps spurred on by the addition of new bass player Zak Dieringer.
But the real gem of this collection is Craw’s 1997 album Map, Monitor, Surge. A true underappreciated masterpiece, MMS contains Craw’s most intricate and sweeping compositions. Album opener “Treading out the Wine Press” throws down the gauntlet immediately. At over eight minutes in length, the song takes you on a winding journey through religious mania and violence. New drummer Will Scharf flails like an octopus underneath the crushing weight of McClelland’s sustained chords. The song heaves toward climax, only to falter into near silence and begin its ascent anew. It’s the most epic thing the band had done up to that point, but it’s only the second-most incredible song on the album. The place of pride belongs to the 12-minute closing track “Days in the Gutter/Nights in the Gutter.” The slow crawl up from the muted bridge is perhaps the most stirring and majestic thing Craw had ever written, and McTighe’s dissipated narrative of a gutter-cleaner’s search for transcendence and debasement is equal parts moving and absurd.
Between those two titanic end-points, you’ve got a plethora of hidden treasures. “Unsolicited, Unsavory” and “I Disagree (And Here’s Why)” showcase Craw at their hookiest. On the other end of the spectrum is the triptych of songs on the album’s second half (“Killer Microbes Devour Cleveland,” “New Plastics Diet Alters Man’s DNA,” and “Parasitic Dad Evades Biocops”). Composed by McClelland, the cycle consists of three incredibly complex songs, each roughly a minute in length and each starting almost exactly the same way. Over the heaving instrumental, McTighe lays down a multigenerational narrative involving evolutionary experiments with microbes, genetic engineering, ecological disaster, and pursuit by an authoritarian society of scientists.
Northern Spy has done a great service by rescuing these albums from obscurity. The 200-page companion booklet is incredibly illuminating, containing an exhaustive oral history of the band (compiled by Hank Shteamer) and rare photos, lyrics, flyers, and a timeline. Listening to these three records for the first time, I experienced a thrill of discovery that brought me all the way back to my teen years. Maybe with a little luck, Northern Spy will follow up this bad-boy with another set collecting Craw’s singles and early demos. Consider my fingers crossed.