As the album title indicates, Ten Million Years and Eight Minutes sets itself to the task of organizing difficult concepts against easier ones. For the human mind to fathom 10 million years would take almost that long, but eight minutes you know. You have some idea of what you can do in that time, whereas 10 million years might as well be infinity. The music of North Carolinian four-piece Caltrop, for whom Ten Million Years and Eight Minutes marks their third outing (the first being a 2006 demo) and second through Holidays for Quince Records behind 2008’s World Class, works in similar fashion, blending such intangible qualities as pastoral vibes and progressive complexities against heavy riffs and thick, weighted grooves. Guitarist Sam Taylor and bassist Murat Dirlik (who also painted the album’s cover) trade vocals back and forth within and between songs, adding further variety to an already diverse eight tracks as guitarist Adam Nolton and drummer John Crouch fill out the Caltrop lineup – the former bolstering and playing off of Taylor’s work and the latter adding subtly technical snare fills to “Light Does Not Get Old” and proving equally capable of driving forward noise rock crunch and punctuating airy ambience within the 5:35 span of “Form and Abandon.” Caltrop are good at playing one side off the other, and Ten Million Years and Eight Minutes shows that just because a recording is raw or natural-sounding it can’t also be cerebrally engaged or melodic.
Both opener “Birdsong” and “Ancient,” which follows immediately, feature landmark guitar solos in their second half, but in fact they’re two very different songs, having in common mostly their tandem efforts to set the course for Caltrop’s breadth on their second full-length. The first cut feels like a journey and is; Taylor’s vocals leading the way with the guitar almost as much as the bass comes to prominence on the fuller, fuzzier Dirlik-fronted “Ancient.” Of the several things one might accuse Ten Million Years and Eight Minutes of being, redundant is not one of them. The album has its indulgent moments and ultimately requires more than a few listens to really sink in – the winding progressivism of “Ancient” alone feels like a test, warm and naturally-toned though it is – but every second of its 53:14 demonstrates its purpose, and Caltrop leave nothing wanting for individual take or even rocking simplicity. They sound like a band who enjoy making simple things complicated, and one good at it to boot. “Light Does Not Get Old” kicks in immediately from “Ancient” and is the most direct transition on the record, bluesy guitar leads backed by jazz rhythms stepping aside for lighter-touch modern-metal timing – Dirlik on bass and Crouch on drums both turn in remarkable performances throughout – as setup for the verses from Taylor. Neither he nor Dirlik is an overly technical singer, but as the music within these tracks shows increasing complexity throughout the album’s progression, their vocals serve to play up and maintain a natural, human feel to the recording. Mostly dry, mostly single-layer, they don’t soar by any stretch, but they serve the songs – and that’s more important.
A bit of slide guitar in “Shadows and Substance” (another invocation of the album title’s idea of vague vs. concrete, perhaps?) provides a pathway over the barrage of tom work from Crouch, and soon the shuffle is underway, Dirlik providing choice fills amid an insistent riff. There isn’t a chorus, per se. Instead, Caltrop continue to pummel that main, cyclical guitar line until gradually it seems to develop a solo and embark from there on a long fadeout. One imagines it’s something that works better in a live setting – minus the fade, plus about five more minutes of balls-out jamming – but it adds a level of intrigue as the 13-minute “Perihelion” begins its deceptively humble intro. Of all the tracks on Ten Million Years and Eight Minutes, “Perihelion” is one of two (near as I can tell) on which Taylor and Dirlik share vocal duties, and certainly the one on which they do the best job of it, the guitarist coming in later to provide despondent contrast to the pastures Dirlik constructs in earlier parts. The fuzz is warm, again, and gentle, and the vocals sweet, and “Perihelion” is easy to get lost in by the time its build really begins toward the five-minute mark. At 6:11, Nolton, Dirlik and Taylor step back to let Crouch introduce the progression of the second half, which he does with frenetic percussiveness, the other instruments joining in first as single-hit punctuation and then soon a full-on descending riff-and-solo interplay that opens into loose-sounding crashes before taking off into the culmination. Taylor takes over on vocals for a twice-repeated bluesman’s lament capped by the lines, “Lord knows I can’t take it anymore/I’m trying to ease your mind/Whoa yeah.”
The second time around in delivering those lines, his voice cracks audibly. Normally, I’d say it’s the kind of thing Caltrop should’ve recut in the studio or mixed out somehow, but the more time I spend with the track, the more it works. It’s the apex of the song – why shouldn’t Taylor be pushing his voice to and past its limits? What on earth would he hold back for? Leaving those cracks in was the right move because it confirms the natural, live feeling of Ten Million Years and Eight Minutes even as it gives the most blatant instance of it. On a grander scale, one could use “Perihelion” as an argument against what seems to be a permanent drive toward digitized perfection in the sphere of modern recordings, but that seems a debate for another time. Frankly, I’d rather enjoy it for what it is than rehash longstanding points of contention having nothing to do with either this song or the album it comes from, which stands itself out with ensuing layered guitar solos – a duel, maybe, between Taylor and Nolton in which everyone wins – and stomps itself to a close behind Taylor’s demand of “Recovery now.” A few much-needed seconds of silence are added to the back of “Perihelion” to allow time to process before “Form and Abandon” (another nod at the title?) revives some of the shuffle of “Shadows and Substance,” Dirlik backing his own vocals with his best bass contributions here-present. The song seems to answer the fever to which “Perihelion” built, but it’s also among the most straightforward of the material on Ten Million Years and Eight Minutes, shifting in its second half to sweeter guitar-led jamming that rides the song out and sets up the stick-click intro to “Blessed,” the album’s culmination.
In listening, “Blessed” delivers what you think “Perihelion” already has. Its beginning, though, is thicker, its interplay of guitars more complex – reminding for just a second of some of Slough Feg’s NWOBHM fetishizing – and the turn it makes into its build more dramatic. Taylor and Dirlik embark on their most accomplished vocal arrangement, backed by near-ubiquitous guitar leads, and a progressive churn seems like it’s going to spin out of control until Crouch steps in to both up the level of chaos and show that Caltrop haven’t lost their grasp on their own material. The song is manic even as the snare rolls in its final movement and seems to carry it to its finish, leaving the psych jam of “Zelma” the rather sizable job of providing concluding afterthought to Ten Million Years and Eight Minutes, which it does by reminding of the peaceful, organic mood of some of the album’s earlier cuts and moving away from the hurricanes conjured by “Blessed” or “Perihelion.” Fitting too that Caltrop would leave the closer instrumental, as I’m not sure how much there could be left to say once “Blessed” is finished. The album is an up-and-down rollercoaster of progressive capital-‘h’ Heaviness that sacrifices none of its forward-thinking stylishness for the natural feel of the recording itself. The acoustics worked into “Zelma” alongside the electric solo, still-tense drumming and underlying bass seem to be speaking to a narrative that’s not really over despite the fact that the album, in fact, is. In any case, Caltrop’s sophomore outing is a triumph that seems to live up to the scope of its name. The mood and the atmosphere these songs offer comes not at all at the sacrifice of pulse, and the variety costs nothing in terms of the overall flow. I could go on. I won’t. Recommended.
Tags: Caltrop, Holidays for Quince, North Carolina