Up until recently, my favorite Cloakroom song wasn’t really a Cloakroom song. “Hymnal,” from the heavier-than-heaven Indiana trio’s 2017 album Time Well, is really Cloakroom’s take on “Were You There,” a 19th-century Black spiritual that probably echoes out of a thousand churches every Sunday. “Were You There” is sung from the standpoint of someone attempting to process the crucifixion of Jesus Christ. This person asks, again and again, if someone was there to see this man put to death. Just thinking of that violence is enough to make the narrator tremble.
As a kid who suffered glassy-eyed through church every Sunday, I must’ve sung “Were You There” countless times without once considering its meaning. With their version, Cloakroom turned “Were You There” into a foggy, bleary meditation on pain and empathy. Band leader Doyle Martin sang the words in a flat, emotionless sigh, but his guitar howled and sputtered with pain. If Cloakroom’s music can be reduced to any one genre, that genre is shoegaze, the form of guitar-pedal bliss-out invented by British nerds whose refusal to make eye contact with their audience gave their sound its name. But “Were You There” is a quintessentially American song, and Cloakroom are a quintessentially American band — plainspoken everydudes capable of conjuring vast swells of feeling without being showy about it.
Like so many American bands, Cloakroom aren’t any one thing. The shoegaze shoebox has never fit them all that well. Within Cloakroom’s dour trudge, there’s always been a whole lot of Midwestern emo, and plenty have noted that Martin uses his voice in ways that recall Pedro The Lion’s Dave Bazan. The members of Cloakroom all came up on punk and hardcore, and doom-metal riffage has always been a big part of their sound, as has the depressive sludge-pop of a band like Jesu. Cloakroom are also classic-rock enough that they’ve covered multiple Tom Petty songs. They aren’t the only band playing around with those combinations of sounds, and they’ve got close connections to their peers. Hum’s Matt Talbott has contributed to every Cloakroom album, including the new Dissolution Wave, and Doyle Martin has recently split his time between Cloakroom and kindred spirits Nothing, a band that Martin joined in 2019. But Cloakroom’s combination of sounds and ideas is unique, and it’s been betting weirder and better with every album.
When Cloakroom released their 2015 debut Further Out, they presented themselves as three factory workers from a small Indiana town. Since then, some things have changed for Cloakroom. None of them work in factories anymore, for one thing. Dissolution Wave is their first album with new drummer Tim Remis, a veteran of the Chicago hardcore scene. (Remis was in the Killer, the band whose brutality helped set the template for a whole generation of heavy Midwestern hardcore.) The addition of Remis hasn’t noticeably changed the band, though it’s impressive that they found someone who hits as hard as former drummer Brian Busch. Instead, Cloakroom have opened things up in other ways.
Dissolution Wave is supposedly a concept album about theoretical physics and the end of abstract thinking. Martin has said, for instance, that he wrote first single “A Force At Play” from the perspective of “an asteroid miner who writes songs by night.” Listening to the album, though, you probably wouldn’t be able to follow any larger space-opera narratives that might be happening. Cloakroom’s lyrics are generally fairly inscrutable: “When the satyr sings or the chickadee/ All the same to me” — that kind of thing. But when Martin says that his dreamy interstellar storylines kept his mind out of a dreary and sad reality where his friends keep dying, that rings true. In Dissolution Wave, I hear a whole lot of longing for escape. I hear movement, too.
Cloakroom are switching things up. They’re still very much the same band, and Dissolution Wave, like past Cloakroom albums, is mostly made up of six-minute fuzz epics. But those six-minute fuzz epics go to some unfamiliar places. Opening track “Lost Meaning,” for instance, has some serious melodic snap in its tidal riff-churn. “Lost Meaning” is the kind of song that recalls a long-passed historic moment when the early Smashing Pumpkins were getting actual radio play, and it sounds huge. “A Force At Play” has subtle synthpop bloops and a ruminative, almost folky melody. The colossal stomp of “Fear Of Being Fixed” is the closest that this band has ever come to going full Sabbath, though Martin’s vocals on the same song are softer and more fragile than they’ve ever been. “Doubts” has a weeping guitar solo that evokes straight-up old-school country. The musical ideas keep evolving and branching out.
Cloakroom’s albums all serve as mood-pieces, soundtracks for mental drift. Dissolution Wave can absolutely work on that level. You can put it on loud and zone the fuck out. It’s bleak, contemplative, layered — a perfect mid-winter album. But Dissolution Wave is also the most concrete, direct Cloakroom album yet. The riffs burn brighter, and the hooks land harder. The landscape varies. The experiments on Dissolution Wave are relatively subtle; if you liked past Cloakroom albums, nothing here will put you off. But in tweaking their approach from track to track, Cloakroom have also made their full, rich sound even fuller and richer. The whole thing resonates on a deeper level, and at least three of four of these songs grab me just as hard as Doyle Martin did when he asked if I was there when they crucified the Lord.
Dissolution Wave is out 1/28 on Relapse.
Other albums of note out this week:
• Anaïs Mitchell’s self-titled album
• Amber Mark’s Three Dimensions Deep
• Katie Dey’s Forever Music
• Eels’ Extreme Witchcraft
• Krallice’s Crystalline Exhaustion
• Babyface Ray’s Face
• Beirut’s Artifacts
• EarthGang’s Ghetto Gods
• Thyla’s self-titled album
• Pinegrove’s 11:11
• NLE Choppa’s Me Vs. Me
• Earthless’ Night Parade Of One Hundred Demons
• MØ’s Motordrome
• Imaad Wasif’s So Long Mr. Fear
• Deathcrash’s Return
• Immanuel Wilkins’ The 7th
• Bad Suns’ Apocalypse Whenever
• Kyle’s It’s Not So Bad
• The Temptations’ Temptations 60
• Jethro Tull’s The Zealot Gene
• The Summer Of Soul soundtrack
• PJ Harvey’s Let England Shake – Demos
• Fruit Bats’ Sometimes A Cloud Is Just A Cloud: Slow Growers, Sleeper Hits And Lost Songs (2001–2021)
• Viagra Boys’ Welfare Jazz Deluxe Edition
• PinkPantheress’ To hell with it (Remixes)
• Jacques Greene’s Fantasy EP
• Squirrel Flower’s Planet EP