“Experimental” has become a blanket term for describing music that deviates even so slightly from the norm. It’s a term that manages to equivocate musique concrète, field recordings, ambient noise, and avant-garde with the likes of prog rock, metal, and indie pop alike. That’s not to say that there’s nothing of substance to the creative elements of those genres. Rather, the level of experimentation sits at a palatable level where they’re largely conducive of a song’s pop appeal. True experimentation is typically less digestible on a first take – it’s accompanied by a certain uneasiness; it conjures questions of the very things the listeners is experiencing. Experimentation certainly exists in music, but it’s not always easy to find artists who (intentionally) play with this part of the human psyche as a way to enhance their performances.
Milwaukee, WI-based Social Caterpillar find their place in an enigmatic intersection of a variety of styles. Chamber-style string arrangements? Check. Walls of noise and static? Check. Samples and voiceovers? Check. Six-minute songs? Check. It’s a sound that seems to borrow from early emo, interject some of the angular elements of Slint, and paint things over with a multitude of electro-acoustic arrangements that feel simultaneously psychedelic and vaudeville. It’s dark, cinematic, raw, and beautiful.
The group’s latest release, Start A Fire That Sings You A Song, reads like a narrative that charts this dense landscape of sounds and mood. It’s a mere eight tracks long, with almost half being interludes, but it’s certainly not light on content. The shortest non-interlude is over four minutes long, and several tracks top six minutes.
As for the music itself, the album wastes no time showing its experimental side. The aptly-named “Cult Chant” begins with a dissonant guitar line and a distorted voice overlay. Warped synthesizer sounds ultimately render the voice inaudible, and after the voice overlay fades, we’re presented with a repetition of “I don’t like what I’ve become”, progressively adding in harmonies. It’s a striking first taste of the album that resolves to a somewhat-normal state shortly after as the strings come in. Slowcore-esque segments weave in and out as they pass by passages of acoustic pop.
Just when things start to feel comfortable, the track fades out into the noisy “Interlude A”. This interlude feels intentionally alien in all respects – whereas “Cult Chant” featured a strong core of acoustic instrumentation, there is nothing organic to be found on its successor.
“Caught a Fly” returns us to a more concrete listening experience, this time opting for a more upbeat approach on things. A mid-tempo guitar line with occasional harmonics serves as the backbone, while intense, staccato vocals drift over top. Of course, this veneer of bliss dissolves into dissonance before long. The fury seems further augmented by brooding string arrangements. And while there are a couple rays of light throughout the later half of the track, the end is accompanied by a chaotic crescendo that would even make The Chariot proud.
“Interlude B” is much like the previous interlude – otherworldly, digital, foreign. There are even hints of explosions hidden under the otherwise-synthetic noise. It’s not something you’d want to loop, but it certainly does add some emotional context to the album.
“Bad Electricity” starts off with a folk/alt-country type guitar line paired with warm, layered vocals. It feels like a campfire song of sorts that juggles a bit of emo influence as well. It’s admittedly one of the simpler songs to some degree, but this is largely a positive. As to be expected at this point, things don’t stay in one place too long and the track shifts gears. The second half is fuller, more vibrant, laced with intermittent falsetto and a faster past.
The abrupt end of “Bad Electricity” feeds into “Interlude C”, the shortest and most barren of the three interludes. It’s far less layered that its counterparts, and it balances some organic elements against synth backdrops. There’s a bit of a melodic segment, though it doesn’t have time to develop too far.
With the interludes out of the way, “New New Year” bursts forth with full force. It’s a drum-heavy track that scales back on guitar a bit. The resounding chant of “Life is just playgrounds for vibrations” is a highlight, and it’s followed by captivating string motif. Ultimately, it’s reminiscent of another Wisconsin band – Appleton’s Cave Paintings. For the typical reader, it boils down to this: thoughtful and poetic art-rock with tight drums and mid-tempo melodies.
The album ends much the way it began – a guitar part and voiceover. However, it’s no issue making out the words this time. It’s a punk ethos, a call to stand up for the value of the lives of others and ourselves. These socio-political overtones are met with some of the most abrasive instrumentation on the album so far. Without vocals, the song would be at home on a horror movie soundtrack. Lyrics are fitting, with an air of protest and a dose of “Eat the rich”. A minute-or-so outro leads to yet another abrupt end, this time for the album as a whole
So, what’s there to make of this release? It’s authentic, balancing raw segments with production that is ultimately professional. It’s adventurous and takes plenty of risks. There’s a lot to like here, but there’s also some tension as well. Again, it’s hard to place this album in one exact genre but there’s a level of folk-punk commentary at play at times which seems to be part of the main theme of the album.
However, there are a couple points of contention. Firstly, the political commentary feels a bit trite – it’s not to say that there aren’t real issues in the world that need to be fixed, but it feels like many artists and civilians are regurgitating the same lines (like the aforementioned “Eat the rich”). This comes across as a bit cliché or perhaps even pandering, especially since I can’t imagine anyone in office to pull up an obscure experimental indie folk album for casual listening – the audience likely already agrees with these sentiments and that bit doesn’t add much to the existing conversation. That’s not a summary of the lyrics of the entire album, which, for the most part, are a bit more abstract and poetic.
Secondly, I’m not sure where I stand on the interludes. I appreciate the subtle nod between the opening track (where the voice over is muffled) and final track (where the voice over is easy to understand) and how the interludes also get less chaotic over time. They’re not overly-long, either – which is nice. However, the transitions between regular songs and interludes isn’t smooth and it would have been interesting to hear the interludes engulf the ends and starts of songs to truly make the album feel seamless.
Thirdly, and this is minor, it’d be nice to hear some of the compositions built out a bit more. There are a lot of instrumental layers to the album, but they’re rarely all seen in the same space. Drums shine every now and then; synths are largely constrained to the interludes. It’d be cool to hear some of the minimalist arrangements paired with more wall-of-sound, post-rock-esque builds. The band does a great job of what they do use throughout the album, but sometimes it feels a little too bare.
Ultimately, Social Caterpillar has managed to lace Start A Fire That Sings You A Song with true experimentation – and like any good experiment, there’s risk involved. Ultimately, the flaws are pretty limited and the end result is a musical cocktail made of ingredients of unknown origin. Its flavor is at times sweet and at times bitter – but when all is said and done, you’ll ask the bartender for another one.