Over the course of more than a dozen releases since 2007, Chicago-based four-piece CAVE have established a reputation for repetition, stretching single riffs and rhythms for minutes at a time across extended compositions that, depending on who you ask, approach either tantric levels of instrumental discipline or the static recursion of a turntable’s needle caught in a lock groove. The band’s concordant reputation for revivalism casts their repetitions as present-day manifestations of the German “Krautrock” movement of the late 60s and 70s. CAVE channels the compositions and production strategies of bands like Neu!, Can, and Faust (i.e., closer to the “rock” side of the kraut spectrum, as opposed to the “kosmiche”) convincingly enough for legendary rock curmudgeon Jim Derogatis to dub the band, in press for previous LP Neverendless, “the best Neu! disciples since Stereolab.” In light of the four decades of evolution and recontextualization that our notion of a “rock band” has experienced since Neu!’s heyday, almost two decades after Stereolab’s debut, some would ask, “Is this a compliment or a condemnation?” “Why should we sink our time into music that drudges up the past?” With the admission that CAVE’s newest album Threace extends their revivalist tendencies further than ever into 70s-core genres like FM classic rock, funk, and Latin rock, the same forward-thinking camp could wonder whether the band has never truly had an original idea.
The four out of five li’l circles at the top of this review should indicate to you that I think this is bullshit. A fixation on CAVE’s influences and their relevance in “modern” or “revivalist” music trivializes the physical reality of their performances and the mastery of their recording practices. If other contemporary instrumental outfits are warping rock music into unexpected shapes or vertically piling complex layers onto rock templates via live-looping or novel adjustments to instrumentation, CAVE have different priorities: focus, simplicity, and tonal precision. With Threace, the band has built a(nother) record capable of surprising, elating, and animating listeners now without ever presenting a guitar, bass, keyboard, or drum tone that would challenge the sensibilities of listeners generations ago. The challenges the band does offer, then, arrive as deviations on the level of song structure or rhythm that defy both preconceptions of rock music back then and expectations of a rock band today.
The JBs-cribbing funk of “Sweaty Fingers” kicks off Threace with more time-worn genre signifiers than CAVE has ever previously utilized: atomic clock drummer Rex McMurray’s congas and hi-hat flourishes fill the space between the licks cut loose by guitarists Cooper Crain and Jeremy Freeze, as Dan Browning’s bass bubbles into fill phrases between reliable returns to the tonic. But in the absence of a Godfather of Soul to steer the session into new permutations, what seems like a generic funk groove proves as transfixing as a zoned-out kraut session, with the accents shifted on the rhythmic grid into funk syncopation from the steady pulse of motoriks past. After hammering through a few brisk rawwwwk chord passages, as if answering a question Funkadelic posed in 1978, the band reaches the song’s coda: one pounding bass note, one bare drum beat, and two guitars scratching picks against strings for four straight minutes. Although not the first time CAVE have engaged in the sacred kraut tradition of playing one note for a comically (or transcendentally) absurd duration, the end of “Sweaty Fingers” represents the polar opposite of the intensifying one-note stomp that concludes Neverendless’s “This Is The Best.” By the time the band has maintained the groove for minutes without variation, the realization dawns that they will never leave the liminal space between buildup and climax — that nothing is going to happen. But this realization allows the listener to inhabit the riff in all its detail: the subtle rhythmic variations in guitar picking, the consistency with which the hi-hat drives forward eternally, the resolute thickness of the bass tone. Stripped of the need for harmony, movement, or resolution, the riff simply exists.
At the end of the day (or year [or decade]), an album must be judged based on what it presents, instead of what is absent. Threace does not contain any vocals, any electronic sound sources, or any conventional verse-chorus-verse song structures. Perhaps owing in part to the replacement of founding member Rotten Milk, the band’s howling wildcard of synth abuse and noise fuckery, with the controlled guitar work of Jeremy Freeze, CAVE have come to focus on synchronized rhythmic passages more than solo leads. Far from a hindrance, the relative absence of lead voices highlights the band’s ability to complicate their mutual vamps with subtle variations in phrasing and the use of irregular time signatures. Only two of the album’s five songs are in 4/4; as in Stereolab’s most enduring work, the extra beats of a loping 7/8 or 5/4 rhythm challenges the listener’s expectations of resolution on a measure-by-measure basis. A head attempting to bob in time lands on the wrong beat consistently without adapting to a new grid (see: the self-consuming Deep Purple chug in 7/8 that takes over “Silver Headband”).
In such a stream of disciplined riffage, the leads that do emerge come to fully occupy the listener’s attention. Saxophone and flute phrases from multi-instrumentalist Rob Frye — a collaborator with Cooper Crain in the more cosmic-/drone-minded Bitchin Bajas, imbue “Arrow’s Myth” and “Shikaawka” with a busy melodicism, fluttering between notes in the scale with a precision evoking the lead voices in Steve Reich’s work. Frye’s melodies begin and end “Arrow’s Myth” like the head passage in a jazz tune, and the track’s keyboard-driven middle section features the most lead improvisation on Threace by a large margin. If this section alone feels superfluous in an otherwise drum-tight song cycle, airing out guitar noodlings and organ pads like a subdued Santana jam, the song quickly transitions back into the manic groove that leads to its conclusion.
At the most recent CAVE show I attended (maybe the 10th or 11th so far), a friend leaned over between songs and yelled into my ear, “THIS IS REAL ROCK AND ROLL! :O” “Yeah!!” I wondered how many other bands could earn this hyperbolic distinction. Few groups so successfully embody the thinking person’s conception of rock music, rife with unexpected deviations in structure and extended compositional conceits, as fully as the head-bobbing appeal of rock in its most primal physicality. As this friend and I, plus a room full of other buds and strangers, grinned, shook our bodies in time, and raised our fists over our heads, the band pounded out every song on Threace. Lest I risk a transition here from an album review to a concert review, I argue that the recording — tracked to 1-inch tape by Benjamin Balcon, edited and mixed by CAVE, and mastered by Rashad Becker at Dubplates and Mastering — captures the band’s live performance in stunning clarity. Each voice occupies its own space in the bone-dry mix and remains audible on even the most low-end narcing of sound systems — when was the last time you could heard a bass guitar so clearly on laptop speakers? On a proper audio rig, CAVE’s rhythm section crushes, and the guitars congeal with keyboard lines and Frye’s occasional leads without masking a single note in the overlap.
The constant piano riff at the center of album closer “Slow Bern” (maybe the closest the band has ever sounded to Neu! ‘75) clatters out among delay-drenched organs and a chiming ride cymbal, content to creep at its own pace in 5/4 time around other melodic tropes of the 1970s. By rising to the high standards of recording and tonal detail set by “kraut” rock pioneers the first time around, and contextualizing the movement’s obsession with repetition within novel structures and rhythms, CAVE’s music sits on a decades-long continuum with the forebears that continue to inspire its members to pick up their instruments and write new music. If contemporary rock bands must revisit the past to produce an album as complete and confident as Threace, I advise that they start digging.