Nick Cageao, Ben Koller, and Stephen Brodsky (left to right) command the stage at The Sinclair in Cambridge, Massachusetts, on December 10, 2014.
For metal and hardcore fans of a certain age, the exploits of a handful of bands that proliferated in and around Boston in the early aughts remains a high water mark for creativity in contemporary heavy music.
Of those groups, Converge and Cave In truly led the pack, crafting fearlessly unique sounds that fused metal’s instrumental athletics with hardcore’s energy, while never shying from mercurial dynamic shifts, noisy atmospherics, melodic flourishes, and copious stabs of jagged dissonance—all notions that went against the grain of heavy music at the time. Cave In also grew into penning damn good songs, full of hooks that displayed a songwriting sensibility far removed from the bash-and-thrash of their peers. Although both outfits remain active and have continued to make potent recordings, Converge’s 2001 Jane Doe and Cave In’s 1998 debut album, Until Your Heart Stops, are seminal metalcore.
Vocalist, songwriter, and guitarist Stephen Brodsky, the ringleader of Cave In and a former member of Converge, is an underacknowledged legend. His knack for pairing smart lyrics and lightning-strike intensity shines through Cave In’s discography like the headlamp of an oncoming locomotive. Brodsky, who now lives in Brooklyn, is a compulsive creator. In 2013, when things slowed down significantly for Cave In, he drafted his friend, Converge drum hero Ben Koller, to form Mutoid Man and craft the band’s debut EP, Helium Head.
Dynamic bassist Nick Cageao, formerly of Brooklyn-based power thrashers Bröhammer, was added shortly after Helium Head was released, and what began as a simple outlet for Brodsky’s restless energies caught the attention of Sargent House Records, who signed the group and gave Mutoid Man the opportunity to up the ante with a full-length album.
Now, 20 years after Cave In played their first gig, Brodsky and Mutoid Man have released the 10-song Bleeder. The turbulent riff feast is dusted with unexpected melodies informed by ’60s and ’70s proto-metal, filtered through the sensibilities of players raised on ’80s thrash, then spiked and polished by the trio’s modernist musical instincts into a gleaming spire of prog-punk mayhem. Clocking in at just 29 minutes, Bleeder is an exercise in succinct, functional freneticism that thrashes, shreds, and incinerates.
As Brodsky and Cageao prepared for a European assault in support of the album, Premier Guitar caught up with the string-stranglers to find out what makes Bleeder tick, to learn about the band’s recording process, and to glean the secret to avoiding the creative plateaus that come with a career as storied as Brodsky’s.
Do Mutoid Man’s songs start with a riff?
Brodsky: Yeah, that’s been the basis from the beginning. Helium Head was just Ben and I trying out riffs in the rehearsal space. We didn’t have a bass player at the time, so I used a weird tuning that dropped the lowest string down far enough to make it feel like there was some extra low end in the room. That tuning shapes our writing because it’s so unique. I come up with riffs I like and then Ben suggests things like “flip it around backwards, take out a beat, and throw an accent in here,” and it becomes a challenging and fun exercise that takes all of us out of our comfort zones and also happens to yield songs we dig.
Could you detail the tuning the band uses and how it helps shape the riffs?
Brodsky: We tune to standard, but a half-step down, and then the lowest string is dropped down to an A#. It’s A#–G#–C#–F#–A#–D#. It’s cool because you can play riffs that would work in standard, but what would be just a power chord now has an extra low octave to it, which really changes the whole texture.
I think I first noticed a similar tuning in the song “Prison Sex” by Tool, and I remember that song really jumped out at me. When I heard that song, I thought, “That’s got to be a bass,” but it turned out to be a guitar with a low B string. I think Soundgarden’s “Rusty Cage” and some other songs on Badmotorfinger are also in that tuning [B–A–D–G–B–E].
What was the writing process for Bleeder like?
Cageao: We were all living in different places and sent riffs to each other on our cell phones until we had a good collection of ideas. When it was getting close to the time when we had to go in to track, we went to a friend’s studio space in Long Island City and did a few weekends there trying to group things together and bang out full songs from the riffs. Things are often done unconventionally in this band. “Bridgeburner” is a good example: Steve sent me a clip from the video game Tiger-Heli and asked me to write a part that sounded like it, and that riff became that song.
So songwriting is much more collaborative than fans might assume?
Brodsky: Oh, very much so! Ben even wrote the main riff in “Scavengers”—that noodley upper-register guitar part. It’s all over the place with how we write things, and that’s really the magic of it. There’s never a loss of ideas between all three of us.
Cageao: It was cool to really do it as a proper three piece. Steve’s an unbelievable songwriter and I would have been happy to just play things that he wrote for us, but it was really cool that he’s into working so closely and interactively.
Stephen, there’s a thread of classic rock laced into what you do that has always set your playing apart from most other contemporary heavy metal guitarists. Tell us a bit about where you’re coming from.
Brodsky: I’m a ’70s child, man! That had a lot to do with how my ear for music was shaped. Even down to the cover art I prefer, that period had a major influence. I got to flip through my dad’s records at a really young age. No one talks about the Cars Panorama album, but the back cover of that record, with those dudes in a circular formation playing the weirdest looking guitars ever, was just so bizarre, and seeing it as a young kid really stuck with me.
Everything I play sounds maybe a little more complex than it really is, and I like it that way because, ultimately, what makes or breaks putting a guitar part into a repertoire that I’m going to play over and over again in a band context, is whether or not it’s fun to play, and if it feels good to my hands. If it doesn’t, I really have to be coaxed into doing it, which is something we call “leveling up” in Mutoid Man.