'The words are yours'
Caspian's all-instrumental sound speaks a language that's not exactly pop or rock
The great ones don't have to say a word to speak volumes. Painters do it with the accent of a brush on canvas. Photographers seize and freeze the world in a telling moment. A gifted actor discloses the essence of her character with the smallest, subtlest of gestures. Wordless revelations of the human heart, mind, and soul have, of course, always been the commerce of classical music and jazz.
A hip-deep dance-floor groove or cathartic rock riff can express what we crave, yes, but a sustained vocal-less exploration -- just guitar, drums, and bass investigating the outer edges of the rock realm without pop's quick fix -- can be trickier.
Caspian, a brightly ambitious, all-instrumental foursome from Beverly that has just released a similarly ambitious debut EP, ''You Are the Conductor," does not exactly make pop or rock music. Well, not in any conventional sense, anyway. But the disc's dramatic, sleekly atmospheric sonic tableaux speak a sophisticated vocabulary nonetheless and fit firmly alongside the company of such so-called post-rock sojourners as Texas's Explosions in the Sky and Canada's Godspeed You Black Emperor!. Swelling, climaxing, dissipating, reconfiguring -- this is music to make you muse, wonder, reflect, rejoice, dream. Densely probing one moment, softly pulsing the next, Caspian creates soundtracks to the films in your head, or the ones that emerge when you listen.
''We don't feel confined by anything," says Caspian guitarist Philip Jamieson, 26, whose band headlines the Middle East Upstairs tonight. ''Our music is based on our reactions to our surroundings -- our personal relationships, the music we're listening to, the people we're hanging out with, the things we're engaged in. We'll always have something to respond to. I don't want to project too much into the future, but this is the kind of thing that could be done forever."
It's been just over two years since four friends from Wenham's Gordon College -- a Christian liberal arts school -- coalesced around an ongoing musical collaboration they dubbed Caspian (both for its connotation of otherworldy adventure as well as its reference to author C.S. Lewis).
Before ever setting foot onstage, they practiced in homes and basements and rented rehearsal spaces for a year. And although a spiritual perspective may inform band members on a personal level, Caspian's feedback-drenched instrumental debut is about as non-denominational as it gets.
''We'd get in a room, turn our amps up as loud as they went, and would just jam for hours," says Jamieson, who had previously played with a more traditional postpunk Beverly band called the Hawley Sawyer Rifle Company. ''We didn't start Caspian intentionally to be an instrumental band. It's not like we were all sitting around saying, 'Vocal music [stinks] -- we're done with it!' We actually tried some singers and conventional ideas, but they didn't really like us. We've found our voice now, but I think it's important for people to know that [this] doesn't mean we have this hidden contempt for singers. This is just how we've chosen to communicate."
Alexander Maniatis, cofounder of Dopamine/Amalagate Records, the independent Beverly label that released ''Conductor" last month, recalls the first time he saw the band at a dive bar in Salem.
''Upon [Caspian] playing their first chord, the crowd was pushed into a daze and Dopamine instantly fell in love," says Maniatis of the band, which also includes guitarist Calvin Joss, bassist Chris Friedrich, and drummer Joe Vickers.
Caspian's ability, as Maniatis describes it, ''to breathe hope into the weakest of times" with its music drew the label's attention.
''To be frank," Jamieson says, ''sometimes it's easier to communicate without a singer onstage shouting platitudes that don't really resonate with you. It's more personal when there are no lyrics or words. The words are yours. They're whatever you want them to be."
Within a month of that Salem gig, Caspian joined an eclectic Dopamine/Amalagate roster that includes Boston's Eyes Like Knives and Cave In frontman Stephen Brodsky. Earlier this year, Caspian headed to New Alliance Studios in Boston to lay down the six tracks that would become the ''Conductor" EP.
''We were limited in terms of our resources," says Jamieson of his band's recorded debut, which clocks in at just under 28 minutes. ''I think it was an excellent starting point and a great way to kick off the journey. But there's so much more to go."
A label takes wing: Two members of Ohio's most highly regarded indie-rock bands are pooling their collective cachet of cool to recruit other soon-to-be highly regarded bands and unleash them on an unsuspecting public. Patrick Carney, drummer-producer for the Akron garage-blues duo the Black Keys (whose ''Rubber Factory" was among the best releases this year), and Jamie Stillman, guitarist for the Kent-based rowdies Party of Helicopters, are co-launching Audio Eagle Records, a free-form record label that will be distributed by the Keys' label, Fat Possum Records. The first Audio Eagle release will be ''Bloodsongs" by the Youngstown, Ohio, outfit Gil Mantera's Party Dream and is due out Feb. 7.
''Jamie and I have been talking about starting a label for a couple of years," Carney says in an e-mail message that is by turns facetious, fanciful, and shot through with groggy personality, much like the Black Keys themselves.
''Basically, our plan is to get the Party Dream heard and then put out records with the millions of dollars we will make from the Party Dream. We want to put out bands fronted by animals, erotic dance groups, and non-erotic dance groups."
Following ''Bloodsongs," Carney says Audio Eagle is expected to release titles from 10% Animal (Carney's side project), and Beaten Awake, another Kent band. Go to www.audioeaglerecords.com for more information.
Bits & pieces: Tonight. Boston's bubblegum-garage faves the Charms headline T.T. the Bear's. A slew of terrific shows around town to ring in the new year include a reunited Sheila Divine headlining Bill's Bar. Pressure Cooker serves up the reggae at Johnny D's. Boston garage-punk legends the Lyres top the party favors at Great Scott. Badfish (a tribute to Sublime) is at Harpers Ferry. Assembly of Dust is at the Paradise. The Damn Personals headline upstairs at the Middle East. Guitarzan, a who's who supergroup of local talent, rings in the new year at Toad. The honky-tonkin' Coachmen are at the Midway Cafe. Thursday. Ex-Letters to Cleo singer Kay Hanley is at T.T.'s. A pair of promising indie-rock outfits, the Double and the Celebration, co-headline at Great Scott.