Review Summary: 「Inhale - exhale」 [colourised, reoptimised (2022)]
Even by the standards of early ‘00s screamo, City of Caterpillar were a prohibitively bleak band. Everything about their now-legendary self-titled debut (2002) is so steeped in ugliness that, for all its intricacy and candour, I find it impossible to mine for lasting gratification. That’s no criticism, though it has drawn me to respectful distance over personal attachment; the record’s emotional scorched earth is a key part of what’s made it so enduring. Its sprawling build-ups would hint at cathartic payoffs only to lurch into deeper pits of depression - where other bands would go on to translate similar melodic reposes into moments of beauty, City of Caterpillar dragged them along like wreckage in a scrapyard. The band clearly had the capacity for more than malaise: highlight track “A Little Change Could Go A Long Ways” peered at something deeper and darker with its solemn opening, and the group’s dynamics and melodic interplay were always more subtle than what the majority of what their peak/valley successors would bring to bear. However, they were very much a band of pain and violence, alternating between looming panic attacks and tortured episodes of frenzy.
Much has changed in two decades. City of Caterpillar’s stunning comeback single “Driving Spain Up A Wall” (2017) presented us with a newfound sense of grandeur, the band’s rock-bottom burnout transformed by a newfound knack for the larger-than-life. Where their ethos was once a mean-eyed blowing off of epic
for the sake of grit
, now the two are aligned by some uneasy power of magnetism, its field fickle and constantly wavering with collateral unpredictabilities. That’s all the introduction you need for Mystic Sisters
, the band’s long-awaited second LP: what this record declines to repeat from the self-titled’s brimstone and frustration, it makes up for in spades with the most creative and disarming tracks the band have ever laid down. Opener “Thought Drunk” kicks off with an instant haymaker, one of the band’s darkest tracks to date and among their freshest in approach. The song ratchets up to momentum over ominous tom-heavy percussion, clangorous (dare I say cinematic
) guitar mewlings and deeply morbid lyicism, only to culminate in three minutes of murky pummeling, a trudge to hell with the weight of the world bearing down. This isn’t a climax, it’s an unravelling - just one of the ways City of Caterpillar redefine the standards they once set for how a forward-thinking hardcore band should approach elongated structures.
Things get a little oblique to this end: “Mystic Sisters” goes one up on “Thought Drunk”’s midway inversion, instead offering a climax that practically evaporates into smoke the moment it lands. A haunting (read: highly arresting) guitar lead tears through the song’s final sections like a banshee trill, riveting in the moment but in no way a relief for the tension of the lengthy instrumental that heralds it. The following “Manchester” takes this in its stride, the uneasy drama of its Blood Brothers-esque call-and-response and dissonant cutaways translated fantastically in sequence, but “Mystic Sisters”’ subversive gambit is still less immediately gratifying than traditional adherents of post-rock–adjacent songwriting may be braced for. It takes a commanding level of intrigue to bypass the need for a classic crescendo when all the signs are screaming for one; City of Caterpillar play with expectations like veteran puppeteers, and their delivery is comfortably masterful enough for the likes of “Mystic Sisters” to transcend such menial concerns as payoff
When the band do swing from tension to release, however, they’re borderline peerless. “Voiceless Prophets” spends five restless minutes shifting its weight uneasily, only to give way to perhaps the most fluid sequence of rock dynamics I’ve heard on any release this year. The track’s closing ninety-second (exactly) run is so seamless and succinct in its builds, reprieves and towering highs that it puts to shame the entire discographies of many a ham-fisted post-rocker City of Caterpillar might have called contemporaries had they held together through the ‘00s. Their grasp of the micro is staggering here, but the closer “Attention Theft… (Gnawing of the Bottom-Feeders)” raises it one with perhaps their proudest highlight of all. It comes in the unlikeliest of forms: a triumphant finale. The band embrace a whole range of qualities once foreign to them, waxing linear, melodic, accessible
, and, for perhaps the first time, outright uplifting. All this is set in clear reference to the self-titled record’s scathing closer, “Maybe They’ll Gnaw Right Through”, at first invoking that track’s manic despair (The rest of us all spend our time / gnawing through the bottom [...] of the barrel
) before billowing up from vocalist Brandon Evans’ strangled verse into a harmonious gush of voices
(!!) echoing the mantra WE GROW
with a conviction that can only be called redemptive for the wretched incorrigible guitar-wielding drum-pounding throat-chafing four-headed hive of anxiety this band used to exhibit.
, despair and growth, struggle and relief - it’s as though City of Caterpillar have finally found the yin to their own yang after all these years, and the result is transformational to what
they are as a band. As one great critic once said of their self-titled record, the early breakup of the band gave the group an air of tragedy – the feeling of unrealized possibilities – and this played no small part in enhancing their image in the collective memory of their fans
. In one song, City of Caterpillar upend this mythos into a defiantly positive homecoming narrative, the strength of which reframes Mystic Sisters
’ conclusion from a corny clutch at epic
to a luminary moment of validation for their entire career. In and of itself, this is nothing short of remarkable. Put into wider context, Mystic Sisters
makes for the strongest studio return of any vintage skramz act to date alongside Driving Spain Up A Wall
(commendations to Circle Takes the Square, Jerome’s Dream and Gospel). Beyond that, it’s a resounding affirmation of everything that’s remained so powerful about that sound. Most screamo (or adjacent) music speaks to me through nostalgia for a broken past; Mystic Sisters
is both steeped in this and outright inspiring in the possibilities it finds for those long-abandoned shattered pieces. Here’s to not leaving your dreams for dead.