It rained yesterday. The Hillsborough air is thicker than usual. The mosquitoes are out early. The five of us face the road in a cluster of old chairs on the front porch of Murat Dirlik's home, a century-old structure he and his girlfriend recently renovated with recycled parts. Like the cold cans of Schlitz in our hands, we sweat steadily, as faint strains of hip-hop, blues and jazz records filter into the muggy air from inside the house.
Intermittently, a new face enters the frame—a friend, a neighbor, one of the local kids building a rope swing in the woods out back—only to wander off again. Music, a few beer cans, the Eno River in the backyard: You'd hardly expect this restrained Southern summer scene from one of the state's best metal bands.
But Caltrop doesn't sound like your metal expectations, exactly. Caltrop's music is an assemblage of disparate elements, welded together in bright new shapes. The blues comes out in singer/guitarist Sam Taylor's voice, a dry-throated moan of emotion and empathy. Adam Nolton's guitar leads merge prog, psych and blues-based metal, while his and Taylor's amplifiers provide an ever-present hum. Bassist Dirlik and drummer John Crouch, who also lend the rhythm for Carrboro hip-hop outfit Kerbloki, churn at the band's bottom. Dirlik offers melodic counterpoints and harmonic balances. Crouch plays with the force of hard rock and the finesse of jazz, visible in his easy, meaty swipes at his ride cymbals.
The band is reluctant to call itself metal, but Caltrop admits its music is heavy and loud. The songs are melodic, but the high volume of old amplifiers lets the tunes crackle in mild distortion. In a word, it rocks.
Or, as Taylor tosses off, "Sometimes, it's gotta be ugly."
Taylor, Nolton and Dirlik all work construction jobs by day. Crouch works at UNC and does freelance computer programming and audio mastery on the side. Caltrop is like a crew of carpenters. They trust one another as they build, something that's apparent in their egalitarian, collaborative songwriting process: "Organic is definitely one of my favorite terms to describe it," says Dirlik.
The next day at band practice, that mentality comes into sharp focus. The band practices inside a spare room in Crouch's Carrboro house, adorned with a glut of amps, guitars, a drum kit, old Casey Burns gig posters and green carpet. Today's tone is workmanlike, each member focused on his part. The band discusses set lists for a string of upcoming shows, and Taylor asks to cut the light, a small chandelier around which the band has circled.
When Caltrop finally launches into its tight 30-minute set, the music breeds physicality. Even with all the doors and windows shut, there's a breeze in the room. Nolton rocks back and forth, his face cast upward, eyes closed, mouth open. It's as if he's speaking through his guitar. Crouch's precise but thunderous drumming leaves him drenched in sweat, blisters forming across his hands. Dirlik's shoulders hunch and his body shakes with the forcefulness of his fingers on his fret board. Taylor concentrates on his vocals, his melodies bringing together the brute force and the delicacy of Caltrop.
After practice, Caltrop ambles to the front porch. The tone returns to the same laid-back, slow cadence of the night before. Cows moo loudly from the field behind the house. Dirlik rolls himself a cigarette. A barefooted Nolton casually leans against a support beam. Crouch rubs his sore hands. Taylor is relaxed but visibly eager to get back to work. He says Caltrop's goal is to make something new while still respecting its influences—to turn recycled pieces into something different, in much the same way Dirlik's house was built.
When we start to talk specifically about Caltrop's long-awaited full-length, the excellent World Class, the four band members say a lot of the things you'd expect to hear from an act nearing the eve of its CD release. They're grateful to the label, Holidays For Quince, whose co-heads, Heather McEntire and Jenks Miller, "seem really excited about Chapel Hill," says Crouch. Taylor says the label takes its role "really seriously." The members talk about using Caltrop to have fun and push themselves as musicians, presumably goals of every band. They're satisfied with Brian Paulson, who recorded World Class and, in the past, bands like Slint, Wilco and Beck: "You hear the electricity," Nolton says, his excitement apparent in his eyes and the sly smile behind his thick beard.
But it's when the four of them aren't talking about Caltrop, per se—when the peacefulness of a front porch on a summer afternoon lets the conversation meander to something else—that the band's character begins to take shape.
"We're all thoughtful people," Dirlik says. He speaks slowly, deliberately, revising his words to craft the most concise phrases for his abstract ideas. But Taylor speeds up as his ideas take shape, punctuating his comments more sharply than his band mates. He accelerates and builds in volume as he gets into an idea and suddenly calms down as a point is made. "As fuckin' hungover or as estranged from my normal state of mind as I get," he says of life on the road, "it's a lot of the clearest thoughts I've ever had. It gives you time to chill." He finishes and slowly exhales.
Nolton communicates clearly but cautiously. Next time Caltrop tours, he says, "I'm gonna be that boring guy. I'm gonna try." Every so often he stammers slightly as if his mouth is struggling to keep up with his mind. But when he plays guitar, that's never an issue. Crouch doesn't say much, but when he does speak, it's placed and phrased just so: "The most romantic part for me these days is the unknown, or the possible," he says.
Later, after our conversation detours again, Dirlik explores the idea of contradiction in human existence, the nuances that allow the human species to embody both good and evil at once. This same idea comes out in "Bad Wolf Good Wolf," the opening track on World Class, where Taylor moans, "My bad wolf is hungry/ Even if well fed/ I'm trying to feed my good wolf instead."
The album's title—which Taylor says is less about an arrogant reflection of the music and more about unity—mirrors that theme, too: "We're all involved in one world class," he says. The album's cover—a bird made of bent, rusty nails—epitomizes such contrast. "We can't escape our impermanence," says Dirlik, who designed the art with tools from his job. Though nails are a strong building implement, these are damaged. The bird they make is either soaring or struggling. It's hard to tell.
Such struggles—between positive and negative, between blues authenticity and post-blues wallop, between being a metal band or not—make Caltrop compelling: The sludgy sound of crackling old amps mingles with a clean-toned lead guitar. Force and finesse face each other at every turn. Dirlik's deliberate manner reveals itself in the lyrics to "Junn Horde": "You will burn yourself cold/ Therefore bellows to my blaze." Taylor's slightly manic tendencies—escalate, recede, repeat—control his guitar playing and singing. Crouch's affinity for the unexpected keeps the songs moving in new directions. Nolton provides the melodic balance to the rest of the band's avalanche. On a debut as fine as World Class, the combined weight and will of the four workers is undeniable, even if not entirely metal.
"I think music is people's attempts to speak the language of the gods," says Dirlik, finally focusing in on the aspirations of his own music: "I want 'em to be captivated by it, start to end."
Caltrop releases World Class at Local 506 Friday, July 18, at 10 p.m. Curtains of Night and Diamond Studs open. The show is free.