Cambridge is idyllic in the fall and merciless in the winter. The winter of 2013 was a particularly rough one for me. I was sitting beneath the giant avalanche of my thesis, a half-baked idea that refused to write itself. The first draft deadline was creeping up and threatening to wipe out the rager weekend of Harvard-Yale, thus throwing the whole equilibrium of the semester off balance. I was in over my head in an intro computer science course and watching doucher classmates rake in six-digit offers from shiny, investment firms. It was very cold.
And during this winter, in between swigs of Southern Comfort (or maybe Bombay Sapphire) at 2 in the morning in my dorm room, I found Caspian. ‘Found’ is the wrong word, though. I was enveloped by Caspian. It gave me a little bit of warmth and shelter; it gave me an enclosed world just to exist in.
I don’t listen to heavy metal, or instrumental rock, or post-rock. I didn’t even know what post-rock was then, and I still pretty much have no idea. I like crisp, finite songs; albums with distinct hooks; witty lyricism; grooves with a backbeat.
Caspian has none of these things. I started listening because I needed an artist for my bimonthly Crimson music column on Boston musicians. My writing was alert, and going to the shows was fun, but after filing I mostly didn’t listen to the artists again. (There’s a reason some of them never made it out of Beantown.) And I more or less expected the same from these mute, bearded guitar men. The first time listening to them was like watching paint dry, the cyclical riffs and murmuring guitar tones putting me to sleep.
I waded deeper in, and started growing gills. I stuck around long enough to hear layer after intricate layer of guitar emerge out of the haze in slow motion; I succumbed to the feedback and skull-crushing, reverberating snare hits. Amidst the frantic rush of the Harvard campus and the constant impulse of one-upmanship, I found it calmer underneath the surface. No single instrument was totally clear, but the immersion was complete and beautiful. The paint drying metaphor gave way to the unfurling of a flower in bloom; the aural equivalent of Ang Li’s staggeringly gorgeous “The Life of Pi,” which I dreamily watched in my dorm room around the same time.
I met the band backstage at The Sinclair in Harvard Square in November. They were at the juncture between a European tour and cross-country American one and were understandably exhausted; as a result, they were both guarded and wearily poetic. We bantered a bit about EDM, millenials etc., and they talked about their aim not at happiness, but at immersion. “We’ll play in any four walls where you’re able to completely get enclosed in the sound,” guitarist Philip Jamieson told me.
I thanked the band, went and got high, and then returned for the show. The Sinclair is a small, friendly room with excellent equipment and acoustics; the bodies packed in tight to combat the brittle cold from outside. As the band unfurled its epic builds, the room started vibrating with warmth and passion. It felt like a cocoon.
Caspian releases its fourth album, “Dust and Disquiet,” on Thursday. I first listened to it my office, a wide-open swath of air, with sunlight streaming in from the sunroof above. But before I realized it, I was conjured back to wintry Cambridge. The shifts and swells within Caspian’s songs aren’t quite apparent; by the time you’ve understand they’ve happened, the ground has slipped out under you and you are wholly submerged. “Arcs of Command” is one long eight-minute build, a relentless piling of loops that keeps climbing to an even more jaw dropping peak every four bars; then the high-pitched guitar harmonics drop out and the groove settles at the very bottom a black sea of righteous fury. I found myself head-banging and laughing ecstatically, while fact checking, in the middle of the day.
As a returning diver, I started expecting certain things: I yearned for Joe Vicker’s savage backbeat to kick in, and for Jamieson’s overdrive squeals, and was rewarded. But the album by no means the product of a band in stasis. Instead of a build every song, they’re trying different things: content to stay lying drowsily on “Run Dry,” an ultimate early morning song, and spruce up “Darkfield” with guitar flurries that sound like Just Blaze samples. Each new sonic space is completely absent of cynicism, a moment of discovery and wonder, 12 years into the band’s run.
And this is perhaps what I appreciate most about Caspian: their patience, their wholesale commitment to earnestness. Earlier this week I saw Pizza Rat race through Twitter treadmill before being unceremoniously dumped off in a shorter time than it takes for Caspian to reach a drop. There’s a feeling of disorientation whenever one of their ten-minute songs ends. It feels like waking up from a dream; it feels like the circle of life starting and ending, a new living creation willed in and out of being.