Crate-Digging: The Cancer Conspiracy – The Audio Medium

I have a completely-filled 120 GB iPod classic, the record crate of the digital age, containing my entire music library. I’m listening to each release in alphabetical order by record title – kind of a virtual archaeological dig. These are my findings.

(Big Wheel Recreation, 2002)

This is a big issue – I keep wracking my brain, and it’s on the periphery, just out of reach. Argh – I know I saw this band live – my wife and I caught them years ago, and I can’t for the life of me remember who they opened for. It’s bugged me for years now – it’s not the first time I’ve wondered about this. We discovered The Cancer Conspiracy the night we saw them, at the Chameleon Club in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. I wanted to say at first that it was a Dismemberment Plan/Burning Airlines show (yeah, that was a good one), as they would have fit on the bill. But that can’t be it – I discovered the DPlan at their show at the Chameleon, and I know that I only discovered one band each night that I’m thinking of. So it’s going to stew – it’s looking less and less likely that my memory is going to improve in this matter, so it’s probably up to the public at large to remind me. Anybody there? Hello? C’mon, somebody had to have been at that show. And with a better memory than me.

Well heck, at least I remember I saw them. And I remember that they totally slew the audience. It was awesome – forget the headliner, I walked out of the Chameleon with a Cancer Conspiracy t-shirt. My enthusiasm was decidedly swayed by the live show, as they disappeared from my radar soon after, and the self-titled EP I also picked up from the merch table didn’t get much airplay. I find it kind of weird that the band didn’t stick with me – I was totally into the whole instru-metal jazz-math-punk thing they were doing. You know, if you ran The Mars Volta and the Thrill Jockey catalog through a meat grinder, you could pack your intestinal lining with The Cancer Conspiracy. Or, for a less gross approximation and more of a cultural indicator, the Burlington, Vermont, trio brought their love of prog to the punk and hardcore masses of New England. I was playing guitar in a prog-punk band at the time, too – maybe it was the beginning of the end of that phase of my listening habits.

See kids, the age-old problem of the live show not translating to record applies here – and perhaps that’s the case with every band you discover at a show rather than on record. Your perception of the recorded product is tainted by your memory of the live performance, the energy of the musicians’ interplay lost in the studio trickery. I wish I could say that The Cancer Conspiracy dodged this issue, but they didn’t. Although to suggest this problem with The Audio Medium is to sell the band somewhat short. See, their live show was so good that they couldn’t possibly match it in the recording booth. This is common. And to be honest, The Audio Medium, separated by years from the performance, is actually pretty good. I was tricked, though: opener “…To Sleep” is a mellow piano/guitar meditation that doesn’t do all that much over four and a half minutes. It kind of lulls you … to sleep. That and the unfortunate fact that it sounds at certain points like an instrumental passage of a Sarah McLachlan or Billy Joel song sets the rest of the album up for failure. It’s hard to get excited about the record with such a bland opening.

But you have to let it get going. “Broken Heartbeats Gathered and Rebroadcast” acrobatically careens around guitar styles for six minutes, reminding you that the band could easily share the stage with Juno, or any other number of Desoto Records bands; or even King Crimson, Rush, or Yes, as synthesizers betray the band’s love of 1970s experimentalism. “Our Minds Active Nightlife” [sic] adds saxophone to the mix, recalling Midwest experimental scene/Thrill Jockey vet Doug Scharin’s excursions as HiM (the good HiM, not “His Infernal Majesty). And album centerpiece, “The Audio Medium: a. Conversation with a Wall,” spends twelve minutes on the most exciting math/prog guitar freakout this side of The Mars Volta’s “Drunkship of Lanterns.” So even though there are valleys here, the peaks are pretty freaking high. But in the end, this isn’t an album I’m going to return to very often. Hopefully it’s not wasted on everybody.

RIYL: King Crimson, Juno, Charts and Maps, HiM

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