It may be hard to believe that Wes Eisold once shredded his vocal chords as front man of celebrated hardcore band Give Up the Ghost, but understanding his roots in the early- to mid-00s scene is the single most important aspect for coming to terms with the music that he creates as Cold Cave. At the time, a wide spectrum of bands often rubbed elbows, both on mix tapes and live shows; it wasn’t unusual to have chest-patting emo rock bands like Onelinedrawing sharing bills with the roaring metal-influenced screamo of Shai Hulud, and, after a five-band show, there was the almost inevitable dance party. While a haze of perspiration was still in the air from the mosh pit and finger-pointing sing-alongs, tight-jeaned scenesters would dance awkwardly to a playlist heavily indebted to new wave standards like New Order and The Cure. At the heart of it all was always “the scene,” an indefinite, amorphous orbit of cool kids into various mutated forms of music that ultimately sprang from the advent of punk: hardcore, emo, screamo, new wave, post-punk, thrash — essentially anything considered edgy and cathartic.
These interactions between members of different tribes may not always have been totally harmonious, but — because of social networking sites like Make Out Club, message boards such as Viva La Vinyl, and online file sharing — there was more of a potential for easy collusion than at any time prior. Eisold’s former bands — American Nightmare, Give Up The Ghost, and Some Girls — certainly existed firmly in the gravitational pull of this scene. His appearance is a dead giveaway as to his provenance: neck tattoos and styled hair were certainly fashion requirements of the time. This time period has been heavily ridiculed for its self-involvement and pretension; it’s even been saddled with defining the word “emo” as its most certainly widely understood: as a term of derision. This scene has even been blamed for giving birth to the hipster as we know it today. But don’t hold any of that against Eisold; just understand it as a reason for his aesthetic choices and mode of artistic expression.
Cold Cave has always been most interesting for its raw, aggressive take on new wave. Despite its predilection for big hooks and conventional song structures, it was adjudged abrasive enough to grace the stages of the tenaciously experimental, noisy gathering known as No Fun Fest. Album opener and centerpiece “The Great Pan is Dead” is, according to Eisold, a declaration of all the things that he wants to assert through Cold Cave. The idea for the song had been kicking around in his head ever since Love Comes Close had been recorded. From the start, it’s all hard-charging guitars, luminescent synths, and impassioned vocals. According to Eisold, it’s a song about “magic, preservation, youth, and movement,” themes that he also identifies as being central to everything his project and this record are all about. It’s a perfect marriage of his past and present as an artist. The fact that he identifies it as the an artistic thesis and that it succeeds so thoroughly shows a great amount of self-awareness on his part. I’ve never heard anything quite like it, the gleaming child of hardcore and new wave, exhibiting the best features of both. Listen after listen, it’s an exhilarating anthem.
In comparison to Love Comes Close, Cherish the Light Years is more mature and assured in every possible aspect. The most striking characteristic is the cleaned-up production. No longer hiding behind distortion, Eisold’s vocals are pushed to the front, revealing himself as an accomplished, charismatic singer. Nowhere is this more evident than on the icy, luscious cold wave of “Confetti.” Eisold’s vocals are a great synthesis of so many iconic new wave vocalists, especially Robert Smith and Dave Gahan, but it’s another beloved character that Eisold’s lyrical sentiments most often resemble; it’s hard not to think of the divisive self-pity of Morrissey when Eisold unfurls lines like “I feel guilty being alive when so many beautiful people have died.” He’s given to this sort of melodrama, and its certainly a stumbling block for some listeners, but where some see wince-inducing sentimentality, others see poetic honesty. Morrissey has toed such a line for many years, and its not hard to see Eisold garnering devoted followers in much the same way. Considering his hardcore band’s reputation for eschewing typical themes of togetherness and struggle for a much more introspective, (emo)tional tenor, as well as his reputation as a writer, this means of expression has certainly always been a part of Eisold. For better or worse, he is always wearing his bleeding heart on his black sleeves.
It was Eisold’s intention for this record to be bigger and better than Love Comes Close, and so he sought out a proper recording studio and enlisted many of his friends to help him realize the sounds that he had in his mind but wasn’t capable of producing alone. He’s often candid and refreshingly honest about his relatively underdeveloped musical abilities; up until writing music for Cold Cave, he’d never played an instrument before. Recording with Chris Coady (Beach House, TV on the Radio), Eisold collaborated with a wide array of talent, once again including Dominic Fernow (Prurient) on electronics and Jennifer Clavin (ex-Mika Miko), who has replaced the departed Caralee McElroy on backing vocals and keys. Helping hands also provided guitars, most notably Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ Nick Zinner and former Hatebreed member Sean Martin. Glassjaw’s Daryl Palumbo played guitar and also bass, in addition to Matt Sweeney (bass) and Gae Licata (drums). With a number of people who are more known for hardcore, screamo, and harsher forms of music involved with Cherish the Light Years, it’s an unlikely cast for such a sleek-sounding electronic project, but, in conjunction with what Eisold wanted to create, the alchemy is perfect.
There are so many moments here to grab onto that will have lasting power beyond the increasingly diminishing shelf life of an album. One such single is “Underworld USA,” a sultry synth pop tune that will surely receive the same deluxe remix treatment of Love Comes Close’s “Life Magazine,” but it far supersedes that track’s appeal. Eisold’s lyrics stick like daggers, with a Byronic sort of preoccupation with misanthropy, sexuality, and blasphemy. “They said the meek shall inherit the earth/ Oh, God, that sounds like so much work,” reflecting both an admittance of weakness and a brash preoccupation that will have Morrissey fans swooning. “Oh take me to your bedroom, I’m ready/ My complexion is so unsteady/ I remember tomorrow/ I forget yesterday/ I want to move into your body and stay,” Eisold intones in the heat of passion, as he’s ready to be dragged off to a sexual encounter. These lyrics are surrounded by muscular, undulating synths with a bright guitar solo and French house filter sweep sprinkled in for good measure. It may sound like a strange pastiche, but it all works amazingly well. “Underworld USA” is a track that’s not easily forgotten; like the kind of world-ending sexual consummation and enrapturing devotion that it describes, feelings are expressed in a manner that may come off as a bit over-the-top at best, “emo” at worst, but, coming from Eisold, you tend to believe them.
I’ve only mentioned the strongest tracks, but, to be sure, Cherish the Light Years is a breathless, versatile record from front to back, always oscillating between extreme shades of dark and light. This strength of contrast is best illustrated by comparing the slick pop of “Pacing Around the Church” and the lurching dread of “Burning Sage,” the former reveling in an effortlessly catchy, Cure-like chorus and the latter recalling the seething industrial intensity of the best Nine Inch Nails tracks. Cherish the Light Years is an album that’s extremely comfortable in its own skin. For Eisold, it’s the culmination of a career searching for the best form in which to express himself. With his grandiloquent emotional intensity, Eisold cuts a divisive figure. There will be those who bristle at the sweeping ablution that he seeks through his darkly poetic lyrics, and there will be those who embrace his desire to bare his scars for all to see. One thing that is hard to deny, however, is the power of these songs. Cherish the Light Years is an album in every sense: in the cohesion of its vision, its smart sequencing, and its boldness in marrying elements of seemingly disparate styles. Eisold is shouldering his cross for all to see, and, for now, it’s impossible not to pay undivided attention.