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April 4, 2003

When prog rock goes pop

Let's not mince words here, Cave In was a prog band. Most self-respecting bands don't like that term, so they'll attempt to dress it up in any number of ways. You've got your prog-metal, like Tool. Or your prog-punk. Vaguely proggy. In this day and age, a straight-up prog band is asking for trouble, so you'll almost never see one fess up in print. The funny thing is that Cave In had nothing to be ashamed of. They were a very good prog band-a rare group whose greatness seemed directly proportional to their song lengths. Hence, their shining moment, Jupiter, the band's last LP, which features several songs over the dreaded five-minute mark. Yet this was a unique instance where Rush-like tendencies weren't unwelcome. Jupiter showcased a band with growing confidence in their sound and an unwillingness to confine themselves to the commercial boundaries of pop.

Unfortunately, the same cannot be said of their newest offering, Antenna. Their major label debut is a surprisingly safe production from a band that seemed more than willing to ignore convention. Cave In pushed the prog aesthetic to the margins and is now opting for a more hybridized (read: watered-down) sound. The time signatures are still a bit screwy, but the performances are almost antiseptically professional and tame. Whereas before songs like "Anchor" or the nu-metal grind of "Inspire" might have morphed into distended, winding epics, here they're condensed into radio-ready fodder-something more palatable to your more mainstream listener. The free-form instrumental passages have been excised. The vocals are more mannered, no longer prone to impassioned pleas and outbursts. It's like hearing Cave In-the abridged version. From the sound of these tracks, Cave In is being groomed as the opening act on the next Incubus tour. Disheartening to say the least. Lead singer Stephen Brodsky even adopts a distinctly Boyd-ish yelp throughout.

Sadly, the results are restrained even when they're not strictly subscribing to the modern rock formula. The nearly nine-minute centerpiece, "Seafrost," gets lost about halfway through, amidst the distortion pedals and Sigur Ros-ish drift. Likewise, "Lost In the Air" just feels like a sorry excuse for a high register guitar climaxes-with the masturbatory solos stripped of all context, forcing Brodsky to yell "lifted away" to herald their arrival. It's the sort of cheap stab at transcendence that the Cave In of old could achieve almost accidentally.

There are isolated moments where vintage Cave In shines through the calculated din. The guitar solo in "Anchor" slowly percolates through the mix, gliding in and out between the drum patterns. And the tribal beat on "Breath of Water" perfectly complements the billowing clouds of feedback that threaten to envelop the song. These occasional flashes are reminders that Cave In's talent hasn't abandoned them. The band is still capable of finding their voice when they want to, but they don't exercise the option nearly enough on Antenna.

Despite the weakness of the new material, Cave In, by all accounts, remains a formidable live act, where their prog inclinations deliver a dizzyingly spectacular head rush. And you're in luck. Cave In play the Metro on April 7 with Piebald and Damn Personals. Tickets are $10.