Cloakroom is the rare band to have one foot each in the worlds of emo and metal. That’s not necessarily intentional; the Michigan City, Indiana trio doesn’t easily pass for Brand New or Jimmy Eat World, and at least half of the songs on sophomore album Time Well have long passages with nothing resembling distortion. And the band’s overarching style is arguably more shoegaze than anything. Yet this interesting, muscular middle ground they occupy is a curious yet versatile space that’s made it possible for Cloakroom to release albums on both emo-revival mainstay Run for Cover and underground metal uberbrand Relapse, or to play shows with the likes of both epic instrumental-sludge outfit Pelican and heroic indie rockers Manchester Orchestra. They’re a heavy band, but not on anyone’s terms but their own.
That Cloakroom’s sonic realm is such a complicated one to define is what makes their Relapse debut and sophomore album Time Well such a revelation. The trio’s instrumentation, even at their most spacious and meditative, arrives with a devastating impact. The rhythm of section of Brian Busch and Bobby Markos give every track a concrete-block backing, beefing up and making more muscular every track, however crunchy or swimming in effects. As a result, frontman Doyle Martin is given an intense foundation upon which to provide either a suitably grungy wall of distortion a la “Seedless Star” (which I praised as being among the best recent heavy tracks) or “Concrete Gallery,” or on a moody, acoustic-tinged dirge like “Time Well.” As much restraint as they might display, Cloakroom imbues every arrangement with the potential to escalate and strengthen into something massive, which their lyric sheet reflects with similarly cosmic ideas. “Seedless Star” finds Martin “dreaming about cold fusion,” and “Concrete Gallery,” at least on paper, reads a lot like a proper metal song: “Fashioning a bastard sword to carve through/Frail worlds covered in holes, cleansed in flame.”
Much has been made of Cloakroom’s Midwestern roots and their day jobs as factory workers. And indeed, some of Cloakroom’s eclectic melange of influences can be attributed their native surroundings, their home state of Indiana being the homebase for the Secretly Canadian group of labels (Jagjaguwar, Dead Oceans), as well as many of those labels’ rosters. In fact, the band even once covered a Songs: Ohia song, and rather than treating it through their effects-pedal board or dense stoner-shoegaze production, their version of “Steve Albini’s Blues” is left to the spaciousness and melancholy of the original arrangement. It’s an emotionally heavy song on its own—no need to complicate it with unnecessary layers of noise. Yet the slow-burning crunch of tracks such as “Gone But Not Entirely” and “Big World” suggest the atmosphere and dynamics of Hum and American Football, who hail from nearby Champaign-Urbana, Illinois. Though the swoosh and glide of their shoegaze influences isn’t, necessarily, Cloakroom’s music is distinctively American.
It’s also, in spite of and because of its intensity, quite beautiful. Restraint is one of the band’s most admirable qualities, each note being given the proper space to land and resonate. On “52 Hz Whale,” the frayed effects and slow movement offer a gentle kind of overwhelming, whereas the relatively brief “Hymnal” showcases a clever interplay between powerful sheets of noise and a major-chord riff that adds seeming chasms of depth with a relatively simple arrangement. There’s a flipside to this grace and thoughtful approach to songwriting that can be all the more surprising, however. Though “Sickle Moon Blues” opens with a slow-moving dream-pop sound and a vocal from Martin that echoes the ethereality, it gives way to an unexpectedly badass sequence of riffs. Cloakroom always manage to find a way to remind the listener how hard they’re capable of rocking, particularly when that same listener lets their guard down.
Cloakroom isn’t a conventional metal band, and they’re perhaps not even a metal band at all, not in any easily recognizable way. Yet they have a grasp of heaviness that transcends genre—it’s liberated, limitless. It’s a tricky balance to maintain something that’s this earthy and grounded while aiming for soaring extremes, but by sheer will of vision, Cloakroom capture this vast expanse and create something that doesn’t just sound innovative but packs an emotional punch.
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Jeff Terich is the founder and editor of Treble. He's been writing about music for 20 years and has been published at American Songwriter, Bandcamp Daily, Reverb, Spin, Stereogum, uDiscoverMusic, VinylMePlease and some others that he's forgetting right now. He's still not tired of it.