This past Friday at Strange Matter, The Catalyst played their last show ever. If I tell you that The Catalyst was one of the best and most important bands to come out of Richmond in the past decade, you can be sure I believe it with all my heart. At the same time, I can’t pretend there isn’t a certain amount of bias there. Catalyst singer/guitarist Eric Smith is one of my best friends, and before he was leading The Catalyst and I was writing for RVA Magazine, we spent seven years playing in a band together. The other guys in the band are good friends of mine too. I was at their first show, in a living room in Jackson Ward in spring of 2003, and have seen them dozens of times since. More than any other local band, their music has been the soundtrack to my experience of the RVA music scene over the past 10 years.
Photo by Nicole Backus
Still, there is also an objective case to be made for their importance. They’ve released three LPs and several other short-form releases on a variety of local labels, including Forcefield, Robotic Empire, and Perpetual Motion Machine. They’ve toured Europe twice and the US countless times, winning fans all over the world with their mix of driving hardcore/metal fury and psychedelic explorations. They were doing the dual-drummer thing before it became a trend, and they’ve written songs that have become RVA scene anthems. Tons of newer local bands have taken inspiration from their creativity and work ethic, and at this point, there are probably a lot of younger kids who can’t remember a Richmond scene without The Catalyst being part of it.
For all of these reasons and more, The Catalyst’s last show was guaranteed to be one of the most essential RVA shows of the year. It was made even more so by the lineup of supporting bands, which included several acts that previously toured with The Catalyst and made the trip to Richmond to play together with them one last time. With such an action-packed evening on the agenda, Strange Matter started the show pretty early, and Navi kicked things off just before 9 PM to a still relatively empty venue. Performing on the floor in front of the stage, this instrumental duo, consisting of guitarist Jon Hawkins and drummer Kyle Flanagan, got the show going in fine fashion with their set of energetic noise-rock. Flanagan’s a beast behind the kit, playing with his entire body as he leaps across his kit to catch a cymbal or slam his sticks down onto his snare drum. Hawkins performed behind an impressive array of effects, but the need to periodically stomp on multiple pedals at once didn’t stop him from jumping around and getting way into his playing. By the time Navi finished performing, the place was starting to fill up, and none of the other bands would have had the space to play on the floor even if they’d wanted to. Regardless, those who were not there in time to catch Navi’s set missed out.
Ancient Sky had set up onstage while Navi was playing on the floor, so their set began almost immediately after Navi’s ended. This psychedelic band out of New York City features Catalyst drummer Kevin Broderick’s older brother Pat behind the kit (drumming apparently runs in their family), and has been steadily improving over the past few years as they’ve refined their lineup. Guitarist Dima Drjuchin is a recent addition, and his lead-oriented playing won me over in a big way over the course of their set. I also enjoyed the way he played the whole set with his hood up and his long hair hanging down, completely obscuring his face. What Ancient Sky is doing could definitely be described as space rock, psychedelia, or something of that nature, but it’s the power behind it that really makes their music stand out. They’ve just released a new LP entitled All Get Out, and the material they played from it live sounded great, alternating between echoing ambient passages and intense crescendos fueled by Drjuchin’s leads and Brian Markham’s powerful vocals. While they were probably the least punk-sounding band on the bill, Ancient Sky were by no means boring.
Delaware’s Count Von Count took the stage next. I saw these guys a bunch in 2006 and 2007 and really liked them at the time, but when I saw them most recently, about a year ago, I found their set to be too heavily focused on an ultra-slow doom metal style that got boring for me after a while. Fortunately, their set on Friday mixed doom elements with some faster, more driving material that broke up the monotony and kept things entertaining throughout. Count Von Count are on the heavier, more punk-influenced end of the doom spectrum, with screamed vocals and sludgy riffing that makes me think of Eyehategod, Cavity, or The Melvins, rather than the bluesy, clean-vocal doom stuff that I get bored with (such as Saint Vitus–forgive me, Wino fans, I just can’t get into them). During the quieter parts of their set, guitarist Justin Vavala would move away from the mic and scream into the air, typically sounding just as loud as he did through the PA. It was intense and cool, as was their set as a whole.
Gnarwhal, the young grindcore two-piece from Nashville, were up next. Singer/guitarist Chappy Hull and drummer Tyler Coburn definitely took the crown for the most technically gifted musicians of the evening, and as always, their lightning-fast shredding blew the crowd away. Coburn’s gift for constantly busting out insanely complex drumrolls even as he keeps an extremely fast beat makes him seem like a young Zach Hill (Hella/Death Grips), while Hull’s speedy riffing and high-pitched screams are reminiscent of a young Mick Barr (Crom-Tech/Orthrelm/Krallice). The combination is devastating, especially since Gnarwhal manage to write memorable riffs that keep heads banging even as they showcase their stunning chops. Aside from Coburn having an unfortunate recurring problem with dropping drumsticks (which is out of character for him), Gnarwhal’s set was noise-grind perfection, and enabled them to reach a much larger RVA audience than they’ve played for on previous trips to town. If Strange Matter isn’t packed the next time these guys come through, this entire city is blowing it.
Next up was a special treat–the recently reformed Brainworms, in their second appearance since regrouping earlier this year. Having released a split EP with The Catalyst and played a ton of shows with them, both locally and on the road, it was definitely good to see these two bands play together one last time. As a huge Brainworms fan who missed their first reunion show, I was particularly excited to see their set. They did not disappoint, playing a great mix of material from all of their previous releases, including classics like “Heart-Shaped Hickey,” “Sunrise Dudes,” and of course, “Winnie Cooper,” from their split with The Catalyst. The Brainworms sound, an unusual but potent mixture of post-hardcore melodies and straight-up punk energy, is hard to describe but easy to appreciate, and with singer Greg Butler up front, shirtless and roaring, this quintet of RVA punk veterans incited the crowd into the most energetic reaction of the evening thus far.
But that was just a warm-up for the true main event, when The Catalyst took the stage for their final set as a band. Despite the fact that they’ve been performing as a trio for the past two years, they brought former multi-instrumentalist Jamie Faulstich back for one last show, and the stage was set up with their classic dual drum kit formation. Beginning with Faulstich on second guitar, they blazed through a few of their fastest, most energetic tunes. They opened with “Smoke Crack Worship Satan,” from their 2006 split LP with Mass Movement Of The Moth, and the crowd immediately went nuts. The second the music started, people were moshing, headbanging, and waving full beers in the air to splatter everyone around them. I had grabbed a spot in the front row before the set began, and planned to watch the carnage from a relatively safe vantage point, but just before the heavy breakdown that comes halfway through “Smoke Crack Worship Satan,” I suddenly realized that what I needed to do was stagedive. That’s the kind of impulse that one must act on immediately or ignore forever, and I’m usually the sort of person who chooses the latter path. However, it was a special occasion, so before I could really consider my actions, I was onstage, diving down onto the front few rows. Maybe I should have thought twice, though, because nobody really caught me. I hit the concrete floor of Strange Matter at full force, knocking the wind out of myself and leaving multiple bruises on my back and ribcage. A helpful mosher dragged me to my feet, and I stayed in the pit for most of the rest of the set, but I spent the next song and a half or so just trying to catch my breath. Oh well. Punk rock.
Photos by Kensey Barker
The Catalyst kept things rolling in fine fashion, sticking mainly to older material as their final LP, 2012’s Voyager, did not feature Faulstich. They did play that album’s heaviest track, “King Of Swords,” about halfway through the set, the only song of the evening that they played as a trio. More interesting was the reappearance of “Thirsty Like Water Thirsty,” a psychedelic instrumental that was once a midset staple for the band but hasn’t been part of their sets in recent years. The crowd was so fired up that even this relatively sedate tune did not calm the frantic dancing down to any appreciable extent. Things got even crazier once Faulstich took his seat behind a second drum kit for the second half of the set. Blasting with barely any pauses through a series of their most popular songs, including “Panic Don’t Panic,” “Jesus Garcia” (from the Moth split), “I Hate The Future,” and “Lars Ulrich’s 1986 Funeral” (from their second LP, 2009’s Swallow Your Teeth), The Catalyst worked the crowd into a frenzy, building up toward the ultimate climactic moment–which was, of course, “This Bike Is A Gravity Bong.” A droptuned moshfest from their first LP, Marinas Trench, this anthem to the joys of riding bikes, getting high, and playing music in Richmond VA is almost certainly the band’s best-loved song, and they attacked it with all the volume and power the occasion demanded.
But that wasn’t even the end of the show. The crowd wasn’t going to let The Catalyst go without an encore, and they obliged by playing a totally random song that they’d barely ever played live before–“A Goodbye Kiss From The Catalyst, You Dog,” the final track from Swallow Your Teeth. It was a good pick because it wasn’t something people would be bummed that they left out of the main set, but it wasn’t an anticlimax, either. For all I know, the crowd might have demanded even more songs than that, but as soon as “Goodbye Kiss” ended, Kevin Broderick pushed his drum kit over and stagedove into the crowd–quickly followed by the rest of the band. It was a great ending to an outstanding show, which nonetheless felt bittersweet. The end of one of this city’s best bands is never a happy occasion. Nonetheless, I’m glad I was on hand to witness it. If you weren’t, you missed out–and that’s not bias, that’s a fact.