Posted by: Necci – Oct 04, 2012
Richmond’s punk and metal scene is without a doubt the strongest music scene in the city. Everyone knows it; in fact, almost every article in this magazine about a band that isn’t punk or metal mentions it. But it can be just as difficult for a band that is playing loud, heavy music to get out from under the shadow of more famous Richmond punk/metal bands as it is for hip hop or indie rock groups to do so. The Catalyst are living proof; they’ve been around nearly as long as Municipal Waste, have toured Europe twice and the United States at least half a dozen times, and are hailed like conquering heroes in random farflung locales (Delaware, Tuscany, etc). And yet at home, they sometimes seem like Richmond’s best-kept secret. However, with the release this month of their outstanding third LP, Voyager, it seems as if this is about to change.
The Catalyst formed in late 2002, in circumstances that were about as far from ideal as possible. Guitarist and longtime Richmond resident Eric Smith, stranded in the bourgeois wasteland of Fairfax County by an abortive attempt at college and a run-in with the law, caught up with drummer and former roommate Kevin Broderick at a time when both needed a place to crash. Kevin’s friend Nate Prusinski, who happened to be a bass player, had some space in the living room of his one-bedroom apartment, so Eric and Kevin moved in, and the three of them formed a band. Undaunted by legal prohibitions against leaving the state, The Catalyst immediately began booking cross-country tours, and released their debut EP, A Hospital Visit, on McCarthyism Records in 2004. Years of cramming up to six people into their tiny apartment just to be able to afford the outrageous rent took a toll, and by the time summer 2005 rolled around and the trio was free of legal obligations, the members of The Catalyst were more than ready to decamp for the greener pastures of RVA.
Soon after the move, they made multiple lineup changes. Nate left the band and was replaced on bass by Michael Backus. They also added multi-instrumentalist and former Delaware resident Jamie Faulstich, who could play both guitar and drums, and would switch back and forth between the two instruments during their set--sometimes within a single song. Over the next two years, working with local labels Perpetual Motion Machine, Rorschach, and Robotic Empire, The Catalyst released a split LP with Mass Movement Of The Moth, a split EP with Brainworms, and a live cassette entitled Freak Out The Squares. All of this was a buildup to their first LP, Marianas Trench, a distinctive one-sided vinyl release with a silkscreened B-side. Their sound grew heavier and more distinctive over the course of these releases, mixing a strong Nirvana influence with the off-kilter time signatures of the Melvins and the full-tilt hardcore velocity of Born Against. They also delighted in effects-laden psychedelic interludes, and featured lengthy instrumentals on all of their releases from this era.
After a 2008 European tour, The Catalyst signed to Italian label Sons Of Vesta, who co-released their second LP, 2009's Swallow Your Teeth, with American label Perpetual Motion Machine. Swallow Your Teeth showed sonic evolution--their standard tempos had become faster, and the longer, more psychedelic songs that showed up on the album had vocals. Both their sense of humor and their political consciousness were becoming sharper; the former indicated by song titles like “Assholier Than Thou” and “Small Town, Big Mouth,” and the latter demonstrated by the lyrics to songs like “Werewolves Of Washington” and “Too Big To Fail.” They spent 2009 and 2010 touring the United States and returning to Europe in support of the album.
Voyager is The Catalyst's first release since Swallow Your Teeth came out three years ago, but that wasn't the initial plan. The band recorded two songs for a split with French band Aussitot Mort, whom they had met and toured with during the 2010 European jaunt. “The idea behind the 7 inch was that Aussitot Mort was gonna come over from France and do a tour,” Eric explains. “We booked the whole tour, [but] they work full-time jobs, three of them have got kids, and they just couldn’t get it together. So when they cancelled the tour, [the record] got put on the back burner.” It is still coming out, though, and will now be released by Richmond label Sound Era. Whether the band will continue playing the songs recorded for it is uncertain, though. “We’ll bring at least one of them back,” Eric says. “‘Thumbsucker’ is pretty straightforward, kind of a fast punk rock song. ‘Our Science Is Too Tight’ is much longer, and as I recall, it was pretty heavily dependent on the double-drum lineup.”
Indeed, as those who have seen them live recently have undoubtedly noticed, The Catalyst has returned to being a three-piece. Jamie’s role in the band had been evolving in recent years, with him playing second drum kit far more often than second guitar, and everyone in the band had been wondering whether it was really working. “We just reached an impasse,” Eric says. “Song structures were getting to a point where it wasn’t conducive to having two drummers. It was more precise and focused, less improvisational [and] free flowing than our older stuff was. There was never a point where we were mad at each other or anything, and in fact, when we brought it up to him, he said he had been thinking about his place in the band already.” There had been a previous period in 2007 during which Jamie left the band to spend a year working in Central America, and attempts at the time to bring in a replacement to play both drums and guitar had not panned out. “Kevin is like a freight train,” Eric says. “He is not a subtle or nuanced drummer. Jamie was only able to play along with him because Jamie’s really attentive and precise. I’m sure [having two drummers] made us more memorable to see live. But musically, I feel like a lot of times [Jamie] got lost in the mix.”
Voyager is the second of The Catalyst’s albums to be released in Europe by Sons Of Vesta, but the first to be released here in the US by RVA’s own Forcefield Records. “[Forcefield owner] Tim [Harwich] is an amazing dude,” Eric says. “We’re glad to be working with him. He’s really got his shit together, and every record that he’s put out so far is pretty mindblowing.” This is as true of Voyager as it is of any previous Forcefield release--their latest album is clearly The Catalyst’s most fully-realized work yet. The overt melodies and epic song structures that previously showed up only at their more psychedelic moments are more smoothly integrated throughout the album. Each side ends with a seven-minute song; “Septagon” ends the album’s first half by building over the course of its first three minutes from a quietly echoing instrumental intro to a brutal metal riff that relentlessly pummels the listener in glorious fashion. There are dynamic shifts within the last half of the song, but all of them serve as no more than a brief respite allowing the song’s main riff to hit that much harder when it inevitably comes back around. The album-ending title track is even more distinctive--featuring almost entirely melodic vocals, this mournful epic retains a solid grounding in heavy guitar distortion, but evokes emotions much more complex and multi-faceted than the harsh anger that dominates much of the album.
For those who come to The Catalyst’s music seeking fast, heavy hardcore/metal fury, though, there’s plenty to rejoice about. Voyager’s first side starts heavy, with the slightly off-kilter galloping thrash of “King Of Swords” being a particular highlight, and just keeps building in intensity through the chaotic climax of “Square Waves,” in which Kevin’s pounding drums are underscored by a bunch of clattering noise. “That’s us in the alley behind the studio beating on a trashcan,” Eric explains proudly. Side two’s opener, “Jupiter Brain,” returns to the ridiculously low drop-G tuning Eric used for Marianas Trench’s “This Bike Is A Gravity Bong,” and features an opening sure to get a lot of people's attention. Over a tremendously distorted guitar riff, Michael screams, “You talk too much, you fuck!” with Kevin’s drums slamming through the speakers just as the last word hits. Michael’s lower, throatier vocals are a bigger presence than ever on this album, and the interaction between his vocals and Eric’s higher-pitched screams works extremely well. Eric also sees Michael’s basslines as the glue that holds the band’s entire sound together. “All the basslines are so funky,” he says. “I can’t do awesome guitar solos. I’m not Eddie Van Halen or Slash. When the time comes where the song would need a guitar solo, I just turn on three or four effects pedals and trudge through it. [Michael] really holds together my chaotic fucked up noise guitar and Kevin’s unstoppable juggernaut of drum death.”
Perhaps the most interesting facet of Voyager is the lyrics. A concept album about a doomed space voyage, the lyrics to the ten songs on Voyager tell a single story that flows smoothly throughout the album. However, the thematic unity seems almost like a happy accident in light of the frantic pace at which the album was completed. “We were in a rush because we were trying to plan a tour this summer,” Eric explains. “We wrote the album in order, [and when] we’d written most of side A, we booked studio time in three weeks, and had to jam out four or five songs in that time period.”
So in light of all that, where did the concept come in? “I write lyrics in a different way than most people do,” Eric says. “I’ll have a phrase in mind that, when I’m singing and playing the song, just kind of comes out. This series of syllables--maybe they make sense, maybe they don’t. What I did at first was just write down what I was actually saying. Some of it was absurd, but some of it was poignant, and I realized that there was a lot of sci-fi paranoia shit going on. One of the first lyrics I came up with for the album is in the song ‘Square Waves,’ and the lyric is ‘Bow down, behold the glory of the cloud.’ If you're talking about a mass of water vapor trapped in Earth’s upper atmosphere, that’s not very menacing. But if you’re talking about a huge cloud of nanomachines that eat your organs from the inside out, take over your brain, and turn you into a homicidal maniac, that’s pretty cool. It just kind of came from there.” At this point, I mention a recent ad campaign about cloud computing; when I’d heard this line in “Square Waves,” I figured Eric was casting the same sort of sardonic gaze upon cloud computing that he’d focused on other semi-disturbing technological advances a few years earlier in the lyrics to Swallow Your Teeth track “I Hate The Future.” He laughs in surprise. “Yeah, shit like that will sometimes get absorbed by your brain and come out of your mouth, and you don’t even think about it. I hadn’t made that connection, but that’s probably what happened. I also mentioned nanomachines in [‘I Hate The Future’]. I think about that shit too much.”
I ask about the plot to the album’s lyrical narrative, but Eric’s reluctant to spell it out. “Maybe people should figure it out for themselves,” he says. “It was fun to write, but I think it’ll be even more fun to see what people think is going on.” I mention that I observed a resemblance to the plot of Danny Boyle’s 2007 sci-fi disaster film Sunshine. Eric admits that I’m on the right track. “Yeah, I love that movie,” he says. “It’s not a coincidence that there are 9 characters on the album and there are 9 characters in that movie. There are some other similarities as well, but I don’t want to give anything away.” He lets on that each song is from the viewpoint of a different character in the story, but that none of the characters are very fleshed-out in his mind. “None of these people have names, genders, or even personalities. They’re just vehicles to move the narrative forward. There’s only so much you can say and have the lyrics still rhyme and look badass to a 15-year-old kid.”
This catches my interest due to the perhaps-not-coincidental fact that I met Eric when he himself was 15 years old. I ask him to elaborate. “Whenever I make a piece of art, I almost always look at it with the idea of ‘What would I think of this if I were 15?’” he explains. Laughing, I mention Assuck’s Anticapital, his favorite album when I met him, but Eric is 100% serious about this. “Music is incredibly important to me, and I know it is for you too,” he insists. “That time period in your life is so strange, and you lock onto things, and carry them with you for the rest of your life. I probably listened to 15 records on repeat the entire year of 1997. I still have all of those records, and I still listen to them at least once a month. That’s never gonna change.” So he’s making music for the 15-year-olds of the world? “Making music for the fucking alienated teenagers who need something to make them feel sane, make them feel at home,” he says in agreement. “I mean, it’s a completely different world now than it was in 1997, but teenagers are still teenagers.”
These days, life is a lot different for The Catalyst than it was when they were 15. But music is still the most important thing in their lives, and they plan to keep playing for as long as they possibly can. “I love this band,” Eric says. “I hope that I am never not in it. I have a fucking great time when we go on tour, a great time writing these songs and playing them for people. But it’s hard to plan for the future.” I ask if the pressures of adult life get in the way, but that isn’t what he means at all. “Playing music basically is my real life,” he explains. “I’ve been doing it for so long now that I have a support structure built around me. I’m able to get time off of work if I need it. My girlfriend, friends, and family all know that at least four or five weeks of the year I’m going to be living in a van, and they seem to be OK with it. It costs a shitload of money to do this sometimes, but it’s worth every penny.”
After nearly a decade of struggling to be heard, no one can say that The Catalyst haven’t paid their dues. They’ve had to do a lot of work and spend a lot of time, money, and effort just to get as far as they have. However, the fact that the ultimate result of that effort has been the release of an album as amazing as Voyager makes it all worth it. We can only hope that the city they live in takes notice.
Words by Andrew Necci
Rocket Photos by Tony Lynch
Live Photos by Markus Shaffer