I think ten years is a bit late to memorialize a great record, but it’s probably more appropriate than, say… three years. But better late than never and better ten than a prime number. With that said, not too long ago, one of my favorite records turned “the big one zero” to no noticeable fanfare. I aim to correct that unfortunate oversight.
The record I’m talking about is “Catch Without Arms” by Dredg, a Los Gatos, CA nu-metal band turned alt-metal band turned pop-prog-experimental-art rock band. best I can tell, “Catch Without Arms” was their third release (if we include early EP’s). It was easy to miss, but hard to forget if you didn’t miss it.
A fellow bassist friend of mine from California turned me onto them one evening when they appeared (much to his surprise) on Fuse’s “Oven Fresh” segment. It was the video for their first and only big single, “Bug Eyes” and I’d never heard anything like it. I purchased the record as soon as I could and changed my life in doing so.
While it’s not my favorite record (Sorry, Dredg. “Graceland” by Paul Simon is kind of hard to top.), it is definitely one of the most influential records of my life. As a musician, my playing is informed, influenced, and colored by it to this day.
“Why?”, you ask? Allow me to explain.
Predictably first on the list is the king of unsung limelight; the bass. The songs paint a picture of perfect, yet hardly textbook, bass playing. Bassist Drew Roulette is a model of tasteful restraint, a quality I deem necessary for true greatness on the instrument. You may notice I said, “true greatness” and not “fame”. His contributions range from punchy to smooth. Absent is the flash of percussive slapping and toe-stepping counterpoint most people tend to expect from great bassists. He frequently drops out only to thunder back in at the most unexpectedly perfect moment, like he’s throwing haymakers. He also manages to play oozy synth parts with his right hand while hammering the fretboard of his bass with his left hand.
But, it doesn’t stop there. In lock-step with Mr. Roulette is drummer Dino Campanella. Here, you’ll find airtight groove. But for all his precision, don’t expect robotic or lifeless drumming. Think “quiet professional”. The perfect blend of mechanical and organic. He blends the fundamentals of kick, snare, and hi-hats like an alchemist. I dare you to try sitting completely still when he’s drumming. Then he starts playing piano with his left hand without missing a beat and the area of your brain that processes talent envy bursts into flame within your skull. Yeah, he’s also the band’s pianist.
Additionally, expect to be assailed by the sound of a lap steel guitar being hammered with a drumstick, wrench, or other unorthodox implement by vocalist Gavin Hayes as the swell builds. Then he hits you with semi-spiritual lyrics that capture both a human self awareness and heady optimism set to ethereal melodies in an almost operatic timbre. From the fear of death to world-weary exhaustion to dogged hope, the sometimes-nebulous lyrics tackle a range of emotions and have seen me through everything from family tragedies to late drives home to breakups to long stoplights.
Then there’s guitarist Mark Engles. If you are unfortunate enough to be unfamiliar with tremolo picking and delay/echo, you will no longer be thus afflicted after this record. He plays equal parts roaring distorted backbone and sparkling crystalline chime. He may not be the obvious multi-instrumentalist that his bandmates are, but he pulls double duty with one guitar. He plays with a barely contained energy channeled from arm to wrist to finger to pick to string.
More importantly than any single line of melody or rhythm, the record as a whole is far greater than the sum of its parts. Each note and every line is a narrow thread in a much broader tapestry. It’s almost like a western interpretation of “Buddhism: The Musical”.
Then there’s the experience of seeing this record performed live…
When I was a boy, my parents would herd my sister and I into the family car and pull off the interstate at the end of a local airport’s runway. We would all get out, lay on the hood, and watch the jetliners take off. We’d huddle together on the warmth of the car’s engine through the hood below while the jets bathed us in sound and fury from above. Seeing Dredg perform “Catch Without Arms” live is not unlike this, provided it’s in an appropriate venue.
But, a word of advice, if I may… Bring cash. You’ll need plenty when you’re throwing it recklessly at the merch booth after the show for any number of shirts designed by the band members (at least two of whom are accomplished artists) and a new favorite hoodie that will later be kept by an ex in the turbulence of a crushing breakup (dammit!).
If you can’t see it live, then buy it on iTunes, lay on your living room floor, hit play, and bask away. Then listen to it in your car. Then listen to it standing up. Lather, rinse, repeat. Ad infinitum.
Me? I’m going to go listen to it now.