City of Caterpillar is the greatest screamo act of all-time
By Nick Reed
City of Caterpillar is a Richmond, Va. post-hardcore band that formed in 2000. Coming to be later than most of their contemporaries, City of Caterpillar stood out in the post-hardcore scene for their raw, passionate, screamed vocal deliveries, but at the same time they craft a clean-cut, well-produced overall sound.
The group recorded their only release with Level Plane Records in Maryland in 2001-02. It was mixed and mastered by Mark Smoot. The band said the mixing was influenced by The Cure’s “Pornography.”
Although City of Caterpillar only released one album, the record has since become a cult classic, and is considered one of the best works of the genre. It has received universal acclaim from critics and fans alike for its originality and clean sound against the backdrop of the poor-quality recordings of their contemporaries.
City of Caterpillar was one of the first bands to be pigeonholed into the genre of screamo, a form of extreme post-hardcore with screamed vocals. Their playing style also stood out, as they took influence from post-rock giants such as Godspeed You! Black Emperor and Mogwai. Their songs were dissonant, depressing, emotional. The album featured genius instrumentation that seemed to separate it completely from punk, until the thundering climax was reached after a long buildup.
The album opens with the epic “And You’re Wondering How a Top Floor Could Replace Heaven.” The track features a constant slow buildup, although still starting off thunderous and fast. The wailing, almost screamed vocals are the first feature you notice. Harsh punk guitars thrash, backed by the constant rumbling and crash of the drums.
Don’t let the bands hardcore roots fool you, though. Melody is found all throughout this album. Once the song dies down a bit, it falls into this quiet lull of jangling guitars. This quiet instrumental dynamic is where the album’s post-rock comes into play.
Further on “F****** hero” features more of the band’s punk song, being one of the shorter tracks at just under four minutes. The same thrashing guitars thunder, however uninterrupted by any quietness. The track is unrelentless: loud and angry. There is still a rhythm and melody to it, however. The dual guitars flow in and out, somewhat reminiscent of post-hardcore greats such as Fugazi.
“When Was the Last Time We Painted Over the Blood On the Walls?” starts with a similar slow dynamic, grows loud and fast, and returns again to the lull. However, it again shifts into this waving, swaying thunder, yet again crashing with noise and passion. The song fades out among a distorted drum break.
City of Caterpillar’s self-titled isn’t the first album to feature loud/soft dynamics, a concept explored early on by bands such as the Pixies and popularized by Nirvana. However, it was a concept never really brought to a music style as extreme as screamo. Screamo is a style of music widely believed to be an evolution beyond post-hardcore.
The album bridged this extreme variation of hardcore punk, with all of its anger and walls of noise, with the soft ambience and melody of post-rock. The ability to make something so extreme yet also so beautiful is nearly unheard of. It wouldn’t do City of Caterpillar justice to say they were ahead of the curb; they built the curb.
Some say that contemporaries like Circle Takes the Square or Envy took what City of Caterpillar did and made it better, but no band has been able to master loud/soft dynamics in as unique a way as they have. If you separated the harder parts of the tracks from the softer ones, you’d have to separate songs, one a dissonant post-rock drawl and one a jagged hardcore wall of noise.
Many artists have attempted what they did and failed, spawning copycat bands the world over. Not only did they revolutionize the screamo scene, they helped to show that screamo was more than just an offshoot of punk and actually had a lot to offer artistically.
The lyrics bleed together: very upfront punk lyrical styles with more cryptic metal lyrical styles to make a new kind of screamo lyric. Although not the first to do this, they perfected the style. Lyrics in songs like ‘When Was the Last Time We Painted Over the Blood on the Walls?” detail an abstract situation (Locked in a room like a tom / To fall from bed to sickness), much like metal, but bring a straightforward realism to it as well (And no one to witness this mess I’m left with), much like punk.
The last important thing to mention about the album is the singing. It ranges from almost whispering, emotive singing to massive shrieks that border on throat-splitting screaming. Although rarely venturing to actual screaming, the album’s style has become enigmatic of screamo as a genre.
There are some problems I have with the album. At times it doesn’t know whether it wants to be a noisy hardcore band or a spacey post rock band. Although it usually works out for them, at times the sound can fall short, like it doesn’t match up.
After the release of their self-titled debut, they disappeared briefly after a short tour around small punk venues on the East Coast. They did not receive much attention during their short existence.
Over the course of the next few years they began seeing attention, from underground fanbases to coverage from large music-related sites like Noisey covering them.
In 2016 City of Caterpillar reunited. Although before playing only small venues and house shows, they were now playing sold-out shows in front of hundreds of people. Although the crowds were filled with nostalgic people from City of Caterpillars heyday, there were also a lot of younger faces in the crowd.
The same time that they reunited to start touring again, they released previously unheard material. The single “Driving Spain Up a Wall” was written for the self-titled album but never recorded. Now, among other similar tracks, they are being released again now, and sound right out of City of Caterpillars golden era.
City of Caterpillar is a legendary band that will go down in history for revolutionizing the genre of screamo and punk music as a whole, and their album will be remembered as one of the best punk albums of all time.