Cloud Nothings, Criteria
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Over the past two decades, Cursive has become known for writing smart, tightly woven concept albums where frontman Tim Kasher turns his unflinching gaze on specific, oftentimes challenging themes, and examines them with an incisively brutal honesty. 2000’s Domestica dealt with divorce; 2003’s The Ugly Organ tackled art, sex, and relationships; 2006’s Happy Hollow skewered organized religion; 2009’s Mama, I’m Swollen grappled with the human condition and social morality; and 2012’s I Am Gemini explored the battle between good and evil. But the band’s remarkable eighth full-length, Vitriola, required a different approach — one less rigidly themed and more responsive as the band struggles with existentialism veering towards nihilism and despair; the ways in which society, much like a writer, creates and destroys; and an oncoming dystopia that feels eerily near at hand.
Cursive has naturally developed a pattern of releasing new music every three years, creating records not out of obligation, but need, with the mindset that each record could potentially be their last. 2015 came and went, however, and the band remained silent for their longest period to date. But the members of Cursive have remained busy with solo records, a movie (the Kasher-penned and directed No Resolution), and running businesses (the band collectively owns and operates hometown Omaha’s mainstay bar/venue, O’Leaver’s). The band even launched their own label, 15 Passenger, through which they’re steadily reissuing their remastered back catalogue, as well as new albums by Kasher, Campdogzz, and David Bazan and Sean Lane. And like many others, the band members have been caught up in the inescapable state of confusion and instability that plagues their home country, and seems to grow more chaotic with each passing day.
Which brings us to 2018 and Vitriola. For the first time since Happy Hollow, the album reunites Kasher, guitarist/singer Ted Stevens and bassist Matt Maginn with founding drummer Clint Schnase, as well as co-producer Mike Mogis (Bright Eyes, M. Ward, Jenny Lewis) at ARC Studios in Omaha. They’re joined by Patrick Newbery on keys (who’s been a full-time member for years) and touring mainstay Megan Siebe on cello. Schnase and Maginn are in rare form, picking up right where they left off with a rhythmic lockstep of viscera-vibrating bass and toms, providing a foundation for Kasher and Stevens’ intertwining guitars and Newbery and Siebe’s cinematic flourishes. The album runs the sonic gamut between rich, resonant melodicism, Hitchcockian anxiety, and explosive catharsis — and no Cursive album would be complete without scream-along melodies and lyrics that, upon reflection, make for unlikely anthems.
There’s a palpable unease that wells beneath Vitriola’s simmering requiems and fist-shakers. Fiery opener “Free To Be or Not To Be You and Me” reflects the album’s core: a search for meaning that keeps coming up empty, and finding the will to keep going despite the fear of a dark future. The album directs frustration and anger at not only modern society and the universe at large, but also inward towards ourselves. On “Under the Rainbow,” disquiet boils into rage that indicts the complacency of the privileged classes; “Ghost Writer” has a catchy pulse that belies Kasher chastising himself for writing about writing; and “Noble Soldier/Dystopian Lament” is a haunting look at potential societal collapse that provides little in the way of hope but balances beauty and horror on the head of a pin.
Vitriola raises a stark question: is this it? Is everything simply broken, leaving us hopeless and nihilistic? Maybe not. There can be reassurance in commiseration, and the album is deeply relatable: Cursive may not be offering the answers, but there is hope in knowing you’re not alone in the chaos.
For a band that sticks to its impulses instead of trends, Cloud Nothings accumulates critical praise and loyal fans with the type of ease modern rock bands can only dream of. That’s because the Cleveland four-piece is the byproduct of Dylan Baldi, a frontman whose melodic intuition and musical fervor are as innate as they are impressive. Baldi’s early indie rock songs welcome pop warmly without sounding trite. His later alt-rock hooks are too busy criss-crossing guitar lines to overthink things. The urgency he writes with comes across in the vividness of his guitar. Since expanding his solo project into a proper band, Baldi has positioned Cloud Nothings as the torchbearers of the frenetic, visceral, and thundering rock of bands like The Wipers and Drive Like Jehu. It’s all alternating resolves and anticipated breakdowns. And live, it’s near impossible to dispute talent that palpable. Looking back, it makes sense how Cloud Nothings got here. At the age of 18, Baldi gained attention after a string of lo-fi songs he recorded in the comfort of his basement began circulating online. It landed him a spot on a buzzed-about show in Brooklyn where, in turn, he caught the eyes of Carpark. His music began its upward ascent immediately. In 2010, Carpark released Turning On, a retrospective combo of the band’s debut EP and various 7” singles. Cloud Nothings unveiled their self-titled LP the following year, a record that showcased how crisp Baldi’s hooks sound when given proper studio time. But what followed in 2012, their breakthrough LP Attack on Memory, paved a new path for the band. The album saw Baldi throw himself into his guitar while collaborating with the rest of his touring band—drummer Jayson Gerycz, bassist TJ Duke, and guitarist Joe Boyer—to create an aggressive, unrelenting, and throat-scratching album that captured not just their sound, but their collective raw energy. Cloud Nothings fleshed out that sound further on 2014’s Here and Nowhere Else, this time as a trio after Boyer’s departure. Even when Baldi, in a decision to feed his quiet fondness for pop, used 2017’s Life Without Sound to showcase his melodic inclinations, he showed a continued growth in his songwriting skills. Cloud Nothings fold all of that forward momentum into their newest record, Last Building Burning. Just over half an hour in length, the album is a singular listen designed to mirror the experience of their live shows. Gerycz and Duke propel the rhythm section with their fastest speed to date. Baldi and guitarist Chris Brown reshape converging guitar parts into double-edged swords, reaching beyond power chords for instantly pleasing riffs that are urgent in delivery. Though the record touches on various sounds of the band’s past—“Another Way Of Life” digs its toes into the harmonies of Life Without Sound and “On An Edge” recalls the blistering peaks of Here and Nowhere Else—it showcases how untouchable the band has become. Cloud Nothings are a permanent staple of what rock music should sound like: gritty, caustic, and tireless. In that, almost a decade into their career, Cloud Nothings have become a reference point for budding rock acts while perpetually looking to outdo themselves as they go.
Criteria are a very loud band, but they’ve admittedly been quiet for a while. For the uninitiated, the band was formed by former Cursive guitarist Stephen Pedersen in 2003 after he moved back to his hometown of Omaha following his graduation from Duke University and the subsequent dissolution of his beloved North Carolina-based “college rock” act, The White Octave. After releasing their debut En Garde that same year on Initial Records, Criteria signed to Saddle Creek Records and put out When We Break in 2005. In support of the album, the act — which also includes bassist A.J. Mogis, guitarist Aaron Druery and drummer Mike Sweeney — toured with everyone from Jimmy Eat World to Minus The Bear and converted countless fans to their anthemic brand of post-hardcore. After two years on the road promoting the album, other priorities took precedent as Pedersen got engaged and focused on his law career while the rest of the band similarly transitioned into a phase of adulthood that wasn’t compatible with being a full-time touring act.
That said, Criteria never broke up and continued to play occasional shows as Pedersen struggled to find time to write new material outside of his domestic duties. In fact the drums for Years were recorded at Omaha’s ARC studios in January of 2014 and the album was intended to be finished five years ago, but the aforementioned professional and personal responsibilities forced it to languish on a hard drive a little bit longer. “I think calling the album Years is pretty self-explanatory but I also think there were probably full calendar years where nothing happened with it,” Pedersen jokes. Eventually the guitars and vocals were finished in Pedersen’s basement studio on the same console as every previous Criteria release. Finally the album was mixed once again by Mogis, whose production credits include everyone from Monsters Of Folk to Planes Mistaken For Stars. “There wasn’t any sense of urgency making this album, but we persisted and never gave up and eventually got it done and we are so excited with how it came together,” Pedersen adds.
While the band’s 2005 single “Prevent The World,” saw Pedersen grappling with his inability to reconcile his rockstar dreams with his law career, that conflict isn’t present on Years. Instead that tension has been replaced with the liberation of living in the moment free of external pressures, a realization that’s at the center of this collection of songs. From the syncopated post-hardcore groove of the opener “Agitate Resucsitate” to the Quicksand-inspired perfection of the closing riff of “We Pretend,” the album also sees the band stretching out while still retaining the arena-ready rock sound that’s become their hallmark. “‘We Pretend’ touches on the theme of being an immigrant or being in a wartorn country walking through landmines and this idea that there are millions of people living under circumstances I can’t even fathom and still finding joy and happiness in it,” Pedersen explains when asked of the broad lyrical scope of the album. “It’s just sort of this idea that you’ve got to break away from all that stuff before it kills you. Hence the line “break away before you break me down.’”
Years has its share of aggressive rock moments — most notably evident in Mogis’ distortion-drenched bass tone, which is so dirty it many require a post-listening shower — but Pedersen himself didn’t feel very angsty this time around. “ I'm in such a general state of contentment in my life that finding inspiration for agitation in my personal life at this phase of it was really tough,” he admits, adding that the personal struggles inherent on Criteria’s first two albums just isn’t a part of his life these days. “I didn't have that kind of tension relating to relationships or trying to balance the band with my career anymore,” he continues. “If anything maybe the thing that got me over the hump was Donald Trump and just being so embarrassed and frustrated with the state of the country that we would bring a man like that into The White House. That kind of crystalized some things for me and put a fire back in my belly,” he explains. It also catalyzed him to finally finish the album and get Criteria back on the road for a well-deserved victory lap.
In many ways, things are coming full-circle for Pedersen. Years is being released by 15 Passenger, a label owned and operated by his first band Cursive. Better yet, in January Criteria will celebrate the release of the album by heading out on a two-week West Coast tour opening for Cloud Nothings and Cursive, which will also mark the first time the band will be playing many of these songs together in the same room. “I think all of us are super excited because this is such a special opportunity to get to go on tour with two great bands, one which we have a ton of history, and get to do this again. It makes us feel very lucky,” Pedersen summarizes. In a world where life often feels unpredictable there’s something strangely comforting about a band like Criteria coming together to create something not for the sake of commerce but just simply because they love making music together. As Pedersen sings during one of Years’ most memorable moments, “This reign is ours.” Let’s bask in it for a minute
Standing Room Only, General Admission Venue. The balcony is CLOSED for this show.
132 Laporte Ave
Fort Collins, CO, 80524