Keelhaul are a progressive-metal band's band. For more than a dozen years, they've earned the approbation of acts like Isis, High on Fire and Mastodon — the latter once opened for them — generating more respect than commercial success. Their knotty fire is documented on four albums, and in the late '90s and early '00s, they toured hungrily, but their timing was off. They burned out on the road just as the post-metal wave was cresting and now persist for that all-too Cleveland of reasons. "We're too dumb to quit," says guitarist Chris Smith.
Things came to a head in 2004, after a European tour that included a handful of canceled shows and a passel of poorly attended ones in Germany. Keelhaul were supporting their third album, 2003's Subject to Change Without Notice, which proved a fitting epitaph for the band. Apparently there's only so far you can push four broke dudes before they break. The tour went so badly that bassist Aaron Dallison had to sell his instrument in Belgium for rent money. When they returned home, it was for an extended hiatus.
"It was the pinnacle of a seven-year tower of frustration," says Smith. "When you're done sculpting something, you just walk away from it."
It was six months before any of the members talked to each other, but eventually they reconnected and started playing intermittently — extremely intermittently. They reckon they played something like four shows in as many years before they considered adding to their legacy with a fourth album, Keelhaul's Triumphant Return to Obscurity, released last summer. Though the title may be factual, it's hardly deserved.
The arrangements lurch and wheel around, segueing from muscular ferocity to contrapuntal churn. Drum fills tumble chaotically as though falling down a long spiral staircase, and the guitars thrum like a furnace in the heart of winter, periodically throwing up sparks like they're unable to fully digest the steely throb. Like King Crimson consigned to the factory floor, it's artistic, brutal and windy, with vocals only occasionally surfacing in the writhing swerve of instruments.
Though the multiple passages and well-crafted violence might suggest premeditation, nothing could be further from the truth. "We're just four dudes from Cleveland who started making music, and it ended up like that," says Dallison. "If there were ever a concept, there's no way we'd all agree on it."
Return to Obscurity was fashioned in nine days in Brooklyn, New York, with producer Andrew Schneider, who also recorded Subject to Change. Then he told Keelhaul they were out of money, and it was time for his Christmas vacation. However brusque he was, he certainly didn't skimp in putting it together — the album is big, terrific and tight, from the meditative "Brady's Lament" to the droning ballistic rumble of "High Seas Vikings Eulogy."
Isis, whose frontman Aaron Turner also owns Keelhaul's label Hydra Head, took them on a European tour last month. ("He figured if these guys are ever going to sell any records, I'm going to have to take them out," says drummer Will Scharf.) The results were better this time, and they even returned with extra dough in their pockets.
No one in the band has a stomach for a full U.S. headlining tour at this point, but they're open to the idea of joining High on Fire or Mastodon, both of whom mentioned in the past taking them out as a supporting act. For now, it's all about baby steps. Scharf even intimates that some material from the tour's soundchecks could provide the beginnings of a fifth album, though Smith says they aren't there yet.
"There's a website where the sheriff lists evictions," he says. "That's where we're at with the new album. We know where the tree lawns are; we just haven't bothered to check any out yet."