Catharsis burned bright and fast: In its eight years, the Chapel Hill band grew from a heavy and heavy-minded hardcore band to an aggressively ambitious genre bully. They developed a reputation as a bullhorn of radical politics, and the hard-touring group practiced what it preached: Every show offered another chance to be challenged musically and philosophically.
"We were living in the same house, playing music together and then being in a van together for half a year, after always being in a van together for several years. Being homeless and sleeping on each other's floors. Loaning each other money to survive," remembers Brian D., the band's frontman. "All your romantic relationships have to take place in that van. Everything. That created an explosive energy."
Catharsis formed in 1994. By 2002, they were done. But their influence was not.
Barely into their 20s, Brian and drummer Alexei Rodriguez had played together in a number of high school punk groups, but none of those took off. Brian was also working on a 'zine, Inside Front, which evolved from a hardcore punk journal to a political platform in 14 issues. The 'zine became the basis for Crimethinc., an extant label, decentralized anarchist collective and leftist publishing house.
"Like a lot of people through the course of the 1990s, having the experience of participating in this worldwide, do-it-yourself underground—these networks of people who, leaderlessly, were able to accomplish all the same things that otherwise it seemed like you needed a giant record label and a booking agent to accomplish—was a pretty direct demonstration that you didn't need hierarchies," Brian says.
Inspired by straight-edge New York hardcore bands and the emerging hybridization of death metal and punk favored by bands such as Integrity, Catharsis' early material was its most obviously hardcore. Even as early as 1996's self-titled debut, the band had begun to fuse the streamlined rush of d-beat punk with Slayer-esque guitar squeals and metallic fills.
"We were determined to always challenge ourselves," Brian says. "If there was something we could do, we would try to do more than that." They sought influences beyond the boundaries of punk, citing avant-garde composer and singer Diamanda Galas, post-rockers Godspeed You! Black Emperor and indie-rock icons Sleater-Kinney.
By the time guitarist Jimmy Chang and then-bassist Jonathan Raine quit the band in 1996 to form the more metal-leaning Undying, Catharsis' political action and musical experimentation were in full bloom. "We wanted to do our own thing," Chang says. "We didn't differ politically, but Brian was headed toward what would become Crimethinc., and we were just kinda like—I hate to say it—generically being straight edge."
Catharsis, however, didn't have time to sit still: 1997's Samsara and 1999's Passion embraced multipart song structures, dramatic dynamic shifts, and elements of classical music and even reggae.
"Probably the most shocking thing on the Passion record is the reggae song," Brian admits. Rodriguez insisted that Catharsis carry forward the punk-reggae tradition of bands like Nausea and The Clash; the moody, seven-minute groove of "Deserts Without Mirages" works ingenuously within the heavy and exploratory album. "The way you carry forward a tradition is by challenging it. It dies unless you challenge it at every link in the chain."
As the songs grew more complex and compelling, Brian's lyrics struck a finer balance between emotional resonance and political relevance, creating a deeper bond with fans than a merely chimeric sound.
Chang remembers the impact that hearing Samsara had on him after he quit the band: "Brian invited us over to hear it. He played it for us, and I was like, 'If I had known you were going to write that record, I wouldn't have quit!' It was amazing."
When his own new band, Undying, ventured to Europe for its first overseas tour, kids with tattoos of Catharsis' Passion artwork seemed ubiquitous. "We were shocked because it was like, 'Does every single kid in Europe have this tattoo?'"
Zac Jones didn't live in Europe at the time. Rather, he lived in Greensboro, where he formed the patient and pensive post-rock band Giant. They now call themselves Braveyoung and live in Portland, Ore., but Catharsis' import is not lost on Jones.
"Growing up in North Carolina and becoming part of the radical community, they had long been an entity," Jones says. Catharsis was the catalyst for the discussions that led Jones and his brother, Isaac, to start Giant. "I enjoy how serious they took what they were doing. They understood the weight they were capable of translating. We have always been drawn to that weight."
In January, Catharsis released Light from a Dead Star, a four-LP box set that collected all of the band's old work and one new song. Though it was available as a $10 digital download, the limited edition of 500 box sets, priced at $100 each, quickly sold out. For years, they'd watched early editions of their albums fetch high prices online, so they decided to put the catalog in one place.
"We always meant to do a discography," Brian says. "We had not intended to do reunion shows."
Nevertheless, in January, Brian, Rodriguez, guitarists Chang and Matt Miller, and bassist Ernie Hayes reunited for a short string of dates including the ninth anniversary celebration of punk label A389 Records and a set in New York sponsored by music blog Brooklyn Vegan. After a gig at Chapel Hill Underground on Thursday, they'll travel to Europe for a short tour. (Rob Davis will replace Miller for these upcoming shows.)
For Chang, the reunion is a chance to resurrect songs he first enjoyed as a fan. But his enthusiasm was foiled by his bandmates' initial, understandable reluctance. How can you honor past glories, after all, while forging something fresh? And Catharsis was an outspoken band whose hallmarks were urgency, authenticity and experimentation: How could they rebottle that more than a decade later?
"I hate the narrative of the reunion," Brian admits. "It's like, 'Once there was something real, and now we're getting to act it out again. We're getting to replay these old rituals, not as good as it was originally, when this stuff was immediate and it was dangerous and urgent.' That's not the narrative I'm trying to go for. ... [But] I want to play these songs that are still relevant and that I still stand by, with my dear friends who feel the same thing and haven't backed down on this stuff."
For the members of Catharsis, at least, the music is as germane now as it was then, perhaps more so. In the intervening decade, several members have become parents. Rodriguez drummed for the metal bands 3 Inches of Blood, Walls of Jericho and Prong. Miller worked to support anti-rape activism in Philadelphia; Brian stayed in Chapel Hill, devoting his time to writing and community organizing. They reckon they've clung close to the ideals of the songs.
"Sometimes you say something as a way to try to build up the courage to live it," Brian says. "You might say something crazy that you don't actually know if you can live up to, but if you say it enough to other people, they're going to make you come through on it. Like quitting smoking or whatever. It wasn't bullshit the first time around, and the older you get, the more real this stuff is."
This article appeared in print with the headline "Link the chain."