AEM088 Cerberus Shoal

The Ampeater Review is thrilled to embark upon a series of 7-inches based on honest to god real vinyl. The opportunity came our way thanks to Portland Maine’s Eternal Otter Records and its “Death, Rebirth, and Transformation” 7-inch series. If most of the music that hits your ears was made somewhere along the L train, now’s the time to perk up and pay attention, because there’s something special happening up north.

Sometimes the harrowing tale of a tiny label’s mission to bring great music to the masses is as compelling as the stories of the artists themselves, and so we come upon Eternal Otter Records, one of the best adjective-animal name combinations in recent memory, and the proud parent of three vinyl 7-inches showcasing Portland Maine’s finest talents. Eternal Otter Records came to be as the result of Will Ethridge’s endeavors to showcase local talent in his downtown apartment. The venue, referred to as the “Tower of Song,” became a Portland institution, and Ethridge immediately saw the importance of what was transpiring there. He founded Eternal Otter Records with a spirit of benevolence and pride, acutely aware of the duty implicitly bestowed upon him to spread the music that he was fortunate enough to have witnessed.

So many small musical communities are only recognized after the fact. We’re guilty of this “nuggets” mentality that encourages us to fetishize obscurity for its own sake, and to eulogize bands of little fame (and sometimes merit) purely because they’re the last remaining albatross in an otherwise meticulously scrutinized chapter of musical history. 1960s LA garage bands were simply. not. that. great. Get over it. Get over it and prevent some incredible artists from becoming “nuggets.” Help them become an important part of the musical timeline, and not just something to be dug up on “lost classics” college radio. I think Will Ethridge understands this plea, and I think it’s with this in mind that he’s gone out on a limb and produced the “Death, Rebirth & Transformation” series.

Cerberus Shoal has been around in various incarnations since 1994. In the last decade and a half the band’s taken on more shapes and sounds than is reasonably possible to describe in writing. Ethridge describes them as a “prolific avant-rock collective” and that’s the best capsule description I’ve heard to date. This 7-inch, featuring “Tailor of Graves” and “Hymn” (as A and B side respectively) is a perfect introduction to the band’s eclecticism, ranging in influence from Crosby Stills & Nash to Guillaume de Machaut. Both tracks are drawn from an 8-song suite called The Ongoing Ding that was recorded in 2003 but never saw release. It was originally conceived as an extension to “The Ding,” an 18 minute odyssey that closed the group’s split EP with Alan Bishop. Fans of avant-pop take note–this 7-inch is for you.

“Tailor of Graves” begins with a bang. Well, it’s more like a pop, as though someone were literally uncorking the song. It opens with an off-kilter banjo loop before diving into a group harmony that uncannily resembles the outtakes for David Crosby’s “If I Could Only Remember My Name,” albeit with more moments of overt dissonance and tension. I’ve been wooed lately by the notion of the highly-sophisticated-art-music-collective (remember Cuddle Magic?). Sure, there’s a power to three-chord rock bands that arguably transcends the simplicity of their chosen form, but it’s sometimes hard to top the overpowering intellectualism of groups like Cerberus Shoal. The collective consciousness overrides any one ego, and results in pop constructions that are so thoroughly vetted as to be almost inscrutable. “Tailor of Graves” sets course on such a comfortable trajectory that it’s a genuine surprise when the song twice builds to extraordinary tension, only to slip effortlessly back into familiar territory. This careful balance between experimental and folk influences make Cerberus Shoal both immediately likable and pervasively unsettling. Both lines run concurrently through “Tailor of Graves,” earning it a spot as a perennial favorite on my turntable these past couple weeks.

Its flip side, “Hymn,” falls heavily on Cerberus Shoal’s experimental side. “Hymn” is just that–well, kinda. Borrowing elements from medieval and renaissance music, both sacred and secular, it’s a strange hybrid between genuine homage and modern interpretation. I’m not entirely sure that it does justice to one or the other. Maybe both. This is the kind of music that I studied enough as a student that I’m able to appreciate it when I hear it while never once seeking it out of my own volition. And yet, there’s a crop of brilliant musicians that find it deeply moving–Dave Longstreth (The Dirty Projectors) drew heavily upon it for The Getty Address, and Charlie Looker (Extra Life) very clearly styles his vocals according to medieval musical principles. It would seem that the joke’s on me, and that Cerberus Shoal has tapped into a prominent vein of influence for a certain school of modern musicians. The piece opens with a duet on melodica(?) that continues in a supportive capacity throughout, as percussion and vocals are layered above it. The only obvious hints that we’re hearing something distinctly modern are the ticking clock and bubbling electronics that emerge as the song winds to a close. I’m still not sure whether “Hymn” is so called because it is, or isn’t, supposed to be listened to as such. Is it a play on the form, or a specimen of the form itself? And what the hell happens after “Tailor of Graves” (Part 2 of “The Ongoing Ding”) that we arrive at “Hymn” (Part 8 of the same)? We may, in fact, never know. Cerberus Shoal disbanded in 2005, and while its members are still playing in various formats (most in a band called Fire on Fire), it’s doubtful that there’ll be any real push to see a complete release of The Ongoing Ding. That is, unless Eternal Otter steps up to the plate…so how about it Will?

This 7-inch is available on vinyl now through the Ampeater Store.

Tailor of Graves Tailor of Graves.mp3

Hymn Hymn.mp3