6/09/2005

Tonight everyone dies.

By the time grunge fully existed as a genre, it was already dead. The very term, "grunge," only came to be applied to bands who had been dragged from the fertile underground to die of exposure in the harsh glare of the mainstream. The best art that was ever created by that Seattle Sub Pop scene, almost without exception, came about before anyone outside the underground college rock and punk communities had any idea that scene existed. When I sat down to write about The Catalyst's debut EP, "A Hospital Visit," I had the initial desire to describe them as one of the first bands to show an overt grunge influence. But then I thought about it for a minute and realized how crazy that was. Bands have been exhibiting overt grunge influences on a pretty constant basis ever since six months after Nirvana hit big. And it's not like I didn't know this--so where was this strange impulse coming from? Thinking it over, I realized that the big difference between The Catalyst and horrible post-grunge "new rock" bands like Creed and Nickelback is that The Catalyst are drawing from the period before grunge was "grunge", back when bands like Mudhoney, Soundgarden, and Nirvana were actually seen as respectable in the underground. And well they should've been, at that time; they were making some of the most interesting and original music that was coming out at the time. Any other grunge-influenced band I've ever heard has pulled mostly from the more easily imitated elements of Pearl Jam, Alice In Chains, or even second-wavers like Stone Temple Pilots. They've quickly reduced the most obvious elements of those bands' sounds to the lowest common denominator, then pumped their boring swill out of millions of Clear Channel radio broadcasts into the ears of countless listeners who hadn't yet learned that there was better than this to be had.

This aesthetic is 180 degrees from the way The Catalyst approach their music. The entire band comes from a background in hardcore, and in a lot of ways this music still is hardcore. It's not fast all that often, and singer/guitarist Eric Smith uses clean singing at least as often as he screams, but there are elements of the hardcore style that still show through in their music. In fact, while their songwriting parallels the structures used by modern chaotic hardcore bands at times, at other times it moves far afield of anything else being done in hardcore today.

Before I continue with this review, I feel I should mention that Eric Smith is a good friend and former bandmate of mine. I bring this up not because I feel that it's biased my impressions of "A Hospital Visit" (I'm quite sure I'd like it just as much if it was recorded by a bunch of guys I'd never met), but because it provides me with a lot of insight into the circumstances that led to the record sounding like it does.

The whole thing began a few years ago, when Eric quit the band we were in together and moved to the Washington DC suburb of Reston, Virginia, to go back to college. His time spent there did not begin auspiciously--within two weeks of moving, his car was hit and totaled by an ambulance that had run a stop sign. Things didn't improve in the coming months, and without going into too much detail, let's just say that he was in the wrong place at the wrong time and ended up in trouble with the law. Now, here Eric was, six months into residency in a town he was rapidly realizing he hated, and due to probation, he couldn't even leave. This probably explains the inscription that ends "A Hospital Visit"'s liner notes; "and oh yeah, fuck the Fairfax County pigs," it reads, a note that seems more like something you'd find in a high-school punk band's demo than on the liner notes of a post-hardcore record.

The Catalyst was formed partly out of frustration with a situation that wasn't going to be ending anytime soon. This feeling comes through in "A Hospital Visit"'s opening track, "Just Like the Last Scene in the Karate Kid." This is the most uptempo, driving song on the record, its frantic pace bringing to mind Nation of Ulysses or early Rye Coalition even as the guitar riffs stick to a more rock n' roll-based structure. "We've gotta shake shit up in this ghost town!" Eric screams on the choruses, trying to squeeze any sort of fun and energy out of the stifling monotony of the northern Virginia suburban wasteland. By the end of the song, though, when he says, "our hearts sank and broke and we can only blame ourselves," you can tell that he realizes that the quest he and his friends are on is futile, that there is no fun to be had here, and the ghost town will win in the end. Rather than ending in any coherent manner, the song slowly falls apart into a barrage of noisy guitar feedback that fades out but never quite disappears.

Things only get darker from here. The unorganized noise of the guitar is overwhelmed by the rhythm section as the band launches into "The Broken English Breakdown Shakedown", which Eric tells me is about a dream he had, and nothing more. However, others close to the band hint that it's actually about the descent of a former compatriot into drug-fueled insanity, a traumatic experience that nearly tore The Catalyst apart. Whichever is true, it is a dark and heavy song, with the speedy tempos and screamed vocals of the opener giving way to a midtempo groove with mostly sung vocals. At times Eric spits his words angrily, but at others he sounds mournful. This is where the Nirvana influence in The Catalyst's sound really comes to the fore, with bent notes, arpeggios, and the occasional burst of unorganized noise replacing the hardcore standard of power chords. The Catalyst only have one guitarist, but instead of using studio trickery to fatten the band's sound and lay down rhythm strumming underneath the flights into pyrotechnic weirdness, they leave the odd guitar leads alone here, and allow bass and drums to carry the song in several places. A band needs a very solid rhythm section in order to pull off tricks like this; fortunately, bassist Nate Prusinski and drummer Kevin Broderick are more than equal to the challenges set before them. Nate's bass playing is particularly interesting on this track, as he's often playing not only different notes but a completely different rhythm than what Eric's doing on guitar.

"Broken English Breakdown Shakedown" dissolves abruptly into "Something About A Conspiracy," an acoustic-guitar/distorted-vocal interlude that lasts less than two minutes and makes me think of more proto-grunge era touchstones, such as the quieter moments on "Nothing's Shocking" by Jane's Addiction, or the intro to Soundgarden's "Hands All Over" (a song I like far more than the sort of things they were doing a few years later when they got famous). It's an interesting track that helps break up the monotony and gives "A Hospital Visit" the feeling of a coherent storyline rather than just a collection of songs, but it's good that it passes by quickly, as it's less of an actual song than an atmospheric moment and could have become boring if it was drawn out.

"The Party's At Your House" is next, and is the slowest and most melodically-oriented song on the record. This stands in dramatic contrast to its lyrical content, a desperate chronicle of paranoia. Eric turns driving on Washington, DC's I-495 into a metaphor for his own inability to escape this place that's slowly killing him. "The beltway only goes so far until you're right back where you were when you started out," he sings, the pleasant tune belying his inner frustration. This song, and really the entire record, is about just how hard life gets when you really make the choice to live outside the mainstream. When you work crappy jobs waiting tables even though you could do better, just so that you have the freedom with scheduling to be able to tour with your band, and when you cram a bunch of people into a tiny apartment just to keep rent cheap enough so that you can afford band equipment, it quickly becomes obvious just how little society is set up to benefit your chosen method of existence. When Eric sings, "And now there's a Crown Vic coming up fast. Cop headlights or cab headlights?", everyone who has had outstanding parking tickets or been unable to afford insurance knows exactly what he's talking about. A lot of times, the only place you feel safe is somewhere where no one you don't want to find you would have any idea to look. The party's at your house, because nowhere else is safe.

"Chronic the Hedgehog" is the album's musical centerpiece, based as it is around a repetitive two note riff that seems like it should be annoying and is instead hypnotic, pulling the listener into a sequel to the paranoia of "The Party's At Your House". Here, instead of hearing about how hard it can be to live outside the constraints of mainstream society, the lens is reversed and we see how the sort of people who choose to live like the members of The Catalyst see mainstream society. This is a story about a lack of job security and opportunity in the post-9/11 world. "Deny to the end these hands are wringing your neck," Eric says, simultaneously pitying the suburban masses who are afraid to look at their lives honestly and urging them to wake up. "The middle awaits and it's a winnerless race and so fucking what if it is." He's not getting anyone's attention though; "Please excuse all the blood," they answer him, "I'm all right." So the band gives up, and for the last two-thirds of the song they launch into an epic instrumental section that they'd probably describe as a jam. As much as I typically hate what that term represents, they pull it off to stunning effect here, with reverbed guitar soaring into the stratosphere as the rhythm section holds everything together before finally dropping down and out completely, leaving just the guitar, now sounding quite a bit less exuberant as it trails off into an arpeggio that becomes the beginning of the penultimate song here, "The Black Market Is 24 Hours".

This is the closest The Catalyst get to recapturing the uptempo energy of the opening track. It's not as fast as "Karate Kid," but it's definitely that intense, and the chorus is reminiscent of At the Drive-In's forceful rock riffing on their final album, "Relationship of Command". This song is more social commentary on the suburbs of northern Virginia, which may have been incredibly depressing to live in but obviously provided a rich amount of inspiration for Eric's lyrics while he was stuck there. Social stratification is the focus here; the way the entire metropolitan area is set up to the benefit of the rich minority, and people in the working class (like the ones who lived in the Reston apartment complex where all of The Catalyst shared a one-bedroom apartment) are treated as a huge servant underclass. The dehumanizing effects take their toll, but also cause seething frustrations to build. "These people are tired of rotting in boxes on 495, under an unforgiving sun." Eric envisions a rebellion and a reversal of this degrading status quo: "Tonight the streets are ours and we're fucking loaded." Is it all a dream? Maybe so, but for a moment, The Catalyst allow themselves to revel in it.

However, the final song, "Going To Jail", is a rude wake-up call. Crashing back down to earth, the song begins, "I fell asleep at the wheel tonight." This is another melodic tune with more singing than screaming, but it has an urgency and desperation not only in its lyrics but its music. Where the more melodic songs previously belied the fear and dread of the lyrics, "Going To Jail"'s wavering verse riff only amplifies these things. This is another time where Nate's bass riff and Kevin's propulsive drumming make the song, pulling the rug out from under Eric's guitar and its twisting rhythm with their own pounding chug that manages to sound so incredibly together while the guitar part slowly seems to unravel. This song represents the emotional climax of the entire album. Eric laments his filling "so much time with so much nothing." "This is just like that dream where you die," he sings, "only this time you're already dead." By the end of the song, he's screaming, "We're already dead!", bringing all of us along into this particular nightmare. The song never mentions jail directly in the lyrics, giving it wider significance for the listeners than it would otherwise take on. We can all relate to the moment of exhaustion Eric describes in the final verse. "Midnight oil ran dry tonight," he sings. "Just watch as my engine seizes." And with that, the song and the album grind to a despairing halt, a slightly sour note echoing into feedback before abruptly snapping off.

To be technical, "A Hospital Visit"'s 7 songs and 25 minute length constitute a mini-album, and not even a true full-length. However, it has more depth of emotion than most double albums I typically run across. And while the album ends on a depressing note, this story has a happy ending; earlier this month The Catalyst finally packed up and moved back down to Richmond, renting a huge punk house and filling it full of friends for not too much more than they were paying to live in a cramped one-bedroom in Reston. Of course I wouldn't wish such awful circumstances on anyone, let alone one of my best friends, but I must say I hope they can continue to produce such powerful and affecting music as they do on their debut CD.

["A Hospital Visit" is available from McCarthyism Records.]

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