Just two years ago, to a distracted consumer wading through the torrent of sounds available at the click of a mouse, The Appleseed Cast would have seemed like a relic of another time.
The band's debut album, 1998's The End of the Ring Wars, established them as one of the more interesting acts to surface from the wellspring of intense, guitar-based indie rock being made across the United States in the late '90s. And up through 2005, The Appleseed Cast were as active as any band, having released five solid albums and a handful of EPs and singles between touring the country and playing shows.
And then, things slowed down. Band principal—and only remaining founding member—Chris Crisci wrote less, and The Appleseed Cast recorded less and toured less, for several years. But in 2012, Crisci followed up an earlier epiphany—at age 16, he says, he realized he was going to play music for the rest of his life—with another.
"It kind of occurred to me that I really wanted to put more into the band again," he says. "It was the not-playing that was getting to me—the bug."
The result was a resurgent Appleseed Cast. They hit the road in earnest during the past couple of years and, in 2013, released a gorgeous new album, Illumination Ritual, on the Savannah, Ga.-based Graveface Records label.
For those who associate Crisci's band with its earliest work, the new album may feel like reconnecting with a childhood friend. It seems sonically familiar—in its ambition, the guitar tones and Crisci's voice when he's reaching for a note or extra oomph—but more masterful and mature.
On the lead track, "Adriatic to Black Sea," The Appleseed Cast spend half of their five-and-a-half-minute running time repeating an eight-note melodic idea as guitars swirl and Nate Whitman's bass burbles beneath, before building to a chunky crescendo in the final 90 seconds. On "Great Lake Derelict," Crisci and Taylor Helenbeck wring cosmic sparks out of their six-strings while ridiculously skilled drummer Nathan Wilder offers a clinic on how to do more than just keep time behind the kit.
Later, "Barrier Islands (Do We Remain)" follows a jittery groove before clearing space for Crisci's soaring vocals, which sound shipped in from an interstellar echo chamber, and "Clearing Life" sounds like Explosions in the Sky with serrated edges and deeper roots. The closing title track is the most reminiscent of the heavier Ring Wars days—at least up until its playful final two minutes and choral coda.
"I wanted to strip down the production and instrumentation to just the bare bones in order to pull energy from that," Crisci says. "Guitar, bass and drums. It's kind of [a] throwback for us.
"So much of that record is first or second takes, and it sounds like it," he continues. "But that's one of the things I like about it. It's much more raw."
Crisci planted the seeds of The Appleseed Cast in Southern California before moving to Lawrence, Kan., between the release of Ring Wars and the band's 2000 sophomore effort, the concept record Mare Vitalis. In the Midwest, the band found itself in the middle of a post-hardcore movement—or "emo," as it was also called, sometimes derisively—that captured the hearts and minds of sensitive punks, college-radio DJs and folks for whom a Diary was not a blank book you write in, but a Sunny Day Real Estate album you clutch to your chest while singing along with cryptic songs about angels.
(Before settling on The Appleseed Cast, the band was once named December's Tragic Drive, which came from a Sunny Day lyric.)
For the next half-dozen years, however, Crisci and his evolving cast of bandmates distanced themselves from emo, most notably on Low Level Owl, a sprawling album that found the group further exploring the arpeggiated guitars of post-rock and augmenting their songs with ambient sounds and experimental techniques. It was, according to the influential music website Pitchfork, "groundbreaking" work, particularly in the glow of Radiohead's concurrent aesthetic expansion.
But where Radiohead became, well, Radiohead, Crisci has continued to make music mostly in and for the underground. He remains in Lawrence, back in the Appleseed Cast saddle and still finding new and interesting things to do with the instrument that has enamored him from the beginning.
"It wasn't until I saw a punk band play at my school during lunch that I was compelled to play an instrument, as opposed to playing one obligatorily," he says. "Electric guitar changed my world, and from the day I first played one I kind of set myself to a more serious pursuit in learning music."
The learning process continues, but 16-year-old Crisci's epiphany about a life spent playing music still rings true for this now 42-year-old rock 'n' roll lifer.
"I'm not really surprised in that I'm still doing it," he says, but "I am grateful that I'm still able to."
The Appleseed Cast will play at The Casbah on Monday, March 31.