If Chapel Hill quartet Caltrop has a weakness, it's one of audience perception, something that's well beyond the control of any such upstart. On the band's long-anticipated first full-length, World Class, the riffs and rhythms explore the turbocharge and high volume of metal, and—averaging just under seven minutes each—these seven tracks speak to obsession with both size and stamina. Frontman Sam Taylor raises his voice, lifting laments with an ireful semi-shout. But for its jazz-conscious thematic variations and stainless, piercing electric blues leads, much of what makes World Class so impressive also runs the risk of sounding thin or passé to metal fans in 2008. It's less crusty or evil or sludgy than surefooted and dynamic and bright.
If Caltrop has a salvation, though, it's the current uprising of righteous, metal-oriented acts roaring forth from the South. From the resurgence of Athens' Harvey Milk and the acceptance of Savannah's Baroness to the polish of Miami's Torche and the promise of Durham's Tooth, the top class of the region's recent cadre of heavy acts is united in unhinged imaginations and rangy eclecticism. Though Caltrop only shares superficially with those bands, such acceptance could pull Caltrop ahead of the heap. At least let's hope that's the fate of Caltrop and its World Class, arguably the best full-length album released by any band in this state this year. With a familiar cast of carpenters and tools (there's nothing new about two guitars, bass and drums) working through familiar plans (especially playing razor-sharp guitar leads and ferocious rhythms), Caltrop rebuilds blues-based heavy metal with big eyes focused through ambition and musical maneuvers carved in perfection. Masterfully executed and vividly captured in Carrboro by Brian Paulson at Track & Field Studios, World Class' impressive stature meets—nay, squashes—my quite sizeable expectations.
What's most impressive about the Caltrop of World Class is its uniform excellence, or the feeling that everything belongs right here. Despite three tracks that break the eight-minute mark, there's surprisingly little upstaging or unnecessary showmanship. On an album of generous leads and solos, Caltrop's efficiency as a band is remarkable, from the flip between tube-amp drone and lock-time throb on "Bloodroot" to the several shifts between headlong march and circuitous wind-ups on "Slice-O-Lator." The spellbinding "Junn Horde" splits its Slint-eats-speakers spoils equitably: Like a prophetic bluesman stopping at the wrong roadhouse on the right night, Taylor assails the hawks from below: "Life is so fine and beautiful/ You destroy in war." Bassist Murat Dirlik takes a brief lead, but he mostly motions through dark, distorted waves, letting the excellent, opposed guitars of Taylor and Adam Nolton hulk and pirouette at will. "Ascendant"—a nine-minute epitome of ambition and execution—ladders up and down a laser-thin, nine-note riff, eventually aiming itself upward like a phoenix as Dirlik and drummer John Crouch motion through a see-saw of tension.
Of particular note, though, is Crouch, who accomplishes so much so subtly here. He fills the pockets with deep kick blasts and pervasive ride cymbal textures, allowing himself space to duck the timekeeper role long enough to add flourishes without losing momentum or—consistent with that aforementioned Caltrop cohesion—spotlight his own maneuvers. His accents, like his distended fills on "Ascendant," highlight the band's melodic movement at large. When he speeds ahead and pulls behind the rhythm on opener "Bad Wolf Good Wolf," his supplements remain both understated and locomotive. On closer "With a Fire in the Middle," he taps and rolls patiently beneath the guitars as they grind a theme into a matrix of repetition and feedback. That steady end offers an ellipsis as a stride piano eclipses the band. You can imagine Crouch and Caltrop hovering nearby in the dark, poised for the next strike after such a perfect first blow.