It’s about four o’clock in the morning and Crag Mask‘s guitarist Gabriel Sciarra stumbles out from the small den in my parents’ house, robed in nothing but a beat-up red sleeping bag, to glug a slug of water from a repurposed gallon of distilled water on my kitchen table. His long, curled hair billows over the top of the bag. In the right light, he looks like a larval-stage Claudio Sanchez. Half-awake, he yawns and putters back to the pull-out couch he’s sharing with another member of the band.
He’s tired, and if it wasn’t sharing a minivan packed near to bursting with vintage amplifiers and drum equipment with three other people on eight hour drives that did it, it was almost certainly the green apple liqueur-infused Jim Beam my good friend Scott enthusiastically offered him earlier in the night while the band chain smoked on my back patio, vigorously discussing the shape of anime to come. Or the six-pack of Short’s Exeter, which vocalist and guitarist Zackery Abramo insisted was upwards of $20 at a party store. Or the thirty-rack of Stroh’s they picked up on the way there just because they wanted to drink authentic Detroit beer.
About six hours prior, Crag Mask had played a gig with mine and several other DIY bands from Southeast Michigan in the upstairs of a local coffee shop. The turnout was decent, but all being said there were probably three times as many board games as there were human bodies in that room. I wasn’t expecting much from the out of town group, but for everyone who attended, the band gave them a harmonically-challenging and heavy experience that proved this was a band worth remembering.
Crag Mask is a four-piece from Connecticut, and they play a bluesy, mid-tempo sludge characteristic of bands like Bilge Rat and Pile. I make the Pile comparison early on in the night, but – as their drummer points out – they don’t share much beyond an address and a few common musical inspirations. The biggest difference between them is that Crag Mask rocks. What I mean by that is, they shred. Pile doesn’t shred. But they’re a band that chooses not to. They’re a Cormac McCarthy novel; a stark Southern gothic in sound, with songs oppressively opaque in form and lyrical content that demand to be taken as they are.
When Crag Mask writes a song, they do it with enough loving musical geekery to showcase the musical ideas contained within. On prominent display throughout the album are the dual-guitar gymnastics of Abramo and Sciarra, with rubbery, string bending lines bobbing and weaving over one another in hypnotic musical figures that refuse to become boring. This is due to the excellent job bassist Phil Lord and drummer Jason Rule have done in supplying rhythmically rich backdrops for them. Often, it is a small turn of musical phrase by the rhythm section, like in the ending of album opener “Sleep Eater”, which saves the idea from turning stale.
But unlike bands like Tool, forever caught up in their own heads, and the experimental outfits which pop up in the weirder parts of Detroit, the band knows when to pull out from esoteric explorations in music theory to hit together, and hit hard. I am not exaggerating when I say that, with a more conventional mix and master job, and some lyrical changes to shift the focus to “(stop me from becoming the) nightmare I’d always feared”, cuts like “Semi Slum” could wind up on rotation of a Mid-American alternative rock station. The core musical ideas are enjoyable, and this is something which I feel many aspiring sludge, drone, and doom artists get wrong time and again.
As the door to the den in my parents’ house slides shut, I’m left in a house that is finally quiet. By the dim kitchen lights, I gaze out into the backyard and wonder through apple liqueur-infused eyes how the rest of this band’s experience in the Midwest will be. Our scene is filled with vibrant, creative people like them, grasping for something tangible and authentic to hold onto, but at times jaded enough to know what to expect in authenticity, in musical accomplishment, in fan engagement. I can only hope flyover America gives them a chance.
- Sleep Eater
- Blue Snoot
- Horse Camp
- Semi Slum