Posted on

Dissatisfaction at a Famed Food Cart Pod Demonstrates Why Multnomah County Wants to Regulate Them

Lunch hour at a food cart parked where the Oregon Hospital for the Insane once stood regularly draws a crowd.

On a damp Sunday afternoon at Hawthorne Asylum, 40 people sat at polished but rugged pine tables, eating banh mi, Philly cheesesteaks and burritos. Two gas fire pits provided warmth. String lights looped back and forth across the plaza, adding a certain romance to the rain.

Hawthorne Asylum, located at Southeast 10th Avenue and Madison Street, just blocks from Ladd’s Addition, is one of Portland’s better-known food cart pods. When it opened in 2019, the collection of 20 food carts was described by WW as “what might happen if Tim Burton were commissioned to design a Portland-themed section of Disneyland,” adding that “there may not be a more crowd-pleasing al fresco dining option this summer.”

But there have been problems at Hawthorne Asylum.

WW spoke with nine food cart owners who rented space at Hawthorne Asylum in the past three years—five of whom agreed to go on the record. Six have since left the pod and moved their carts elsewhere, were kicked out or dropped out of the business altogether. They say unsanitary conditions at Hawthorne Asylum was at least part of the reason they left.

Some described overflowing dumpsters, portable toilets that were smeared with human waste, and broken promises.

Xavier Allen moved his barbecue cart and smoker into Hawthorne Asylum in May 2020. He stayed 16 months—and left because of what he describes as poor sanitation, promised amenities that never arrived, and rising rent: $2,945 a month, including utilities.

“There were rodents, the trash bins overflowed, they wanted us to take all our recyclables home,” Allen says. “I had customers take photos of rodents and say they’re not coming back here.”

Cart operators documented their claims with photos, emails and texts.

Hawthorne Asylum is owned by the Johnson family. Longtime Gresham residents, Steve Johnson’s immediate family own commercial properties across Portland—including those housing an auto parts shop, a ZoomCare office, and the recently shuttered Rogue Brewery block in the Pearl District.

Co-owner Brock Johnson, 31, characterized the concerns of his former tenants as being blown out of proportion. Last week, he points out, he installed permanent restrooms. Johnson says the pod now has regular pest management and janitorial services, and has always had trash pickup, though the pod still struggles with overflow on the weekends.

“I think the size of this place and the nature of what it is, there’s always variables we have to deal with,” says pod manager Scott Kinard, who sat down for an interview with WW and Johnson in the pod’s warehouse. “We’ve had situations…dealing with our trash company, dealing with our porta-potty company. But as far as the bigger picture, I think we’ve done a fantastic job.”

But what’s puzzling is that Multnomah County regulators say none of this is unusual.

Food carts in Portland are required to have a county license and have strict rules relating to sanitation and food storage and handling; they’re also subject to regular county health inspections. But fewer rules apply to the pods themselves.

In effect, pod owners have gotten a pass. No one requires they provide trash and recycling pickup, pest control or electricity for the carts. They aren’t subject to routine health inspections; the Asylum has never been inspected by the county health department.

The Portland Bureau of Environmental Services conducts narrow inspections of wastewater disposal, waste storage and grease, mostly after someone complains. Last month, the bureau conducted an inspection at Hawthorne Asylum—not based on a complaint—and found it complied with existing city rules.

Jeff Martin, the environmental health inspections supervisor for Multnomah County, says that as a result, most pod owners don’t offer much to their cart owners in the way of consistency, cleanliness and basic services.

“It’s pretty universal,” Martin says.

“We have this power dynamic where we have these mobile unit operators for whom English might not be first language or they might be brand new to this area or country,” Martin adds, “and landowners charging them an arm and a leg, providing them little to no services and potentially putting them at risk for health and safety concerns.”

In 2018, then-60-year-old Steve Johnson bought the former mental hospital property on Southeast Hawthorne Boulevard where the Asylum now stands. He and his son, Brock, rehabbed the property themselves—both were handy and had a woodworker’s attention to detail and quality.

Beautifully crafted blue-pine benches dot the area, and the recycling station is topped by metal Minions. (Customers dump food waste into the Minions’ mouths.)

When Xavier Allen moved Mack Daddy’s BBQ to the pod, he had big expectations.

“They said they were building a bar with indoor bathrooms and a stage with a covered seating area, and it would be open on Fridays and Saturdays till 1:30 in the morning,” Allen says. These and other promises weren’t written in the leases, but five former cart owners say it was a primary reason they came to the Asylum.

For Allen, that justified the initial base $2,000 rent. Monthly rent for carts at pods across the city ranges from $800 to $2,500. His first lease was for one year.

Allen says he found Steve Johnson a difficult landlord. After a dispute over whether a rent check was late, Johnson sent Allen letters and a text message (reviewed by WW) that threatened to chain up his barbecue smoker and hold his cart as collateral. Johnson did, in fact, loop a chain around it, according to a text from Steve to Allen and a picture of the chained barbecue, shared with WW by Allen.

In summer 2021, Johnson told Allen rent was being raised to $2,945 including utilities, a 40% increase. Allen negotiated to stay at his remaining rent until Johnson found a new tenant. Allen moved out in October 2021.

By that time, Steve Johnson had died in August 2021 at age 63. Brock took over.

Michael Keskin, who owns the Bark City BBQ cart, was at the pod for a year. He left, he says, because “we were constantly being lied to. If you’re paying that kind of rent, you should be getting services.”

Six cart owners say the Johnsons told them in early 2019 that a 40-tap beer bar would be up and running within six months. It’s still under construction, and Kinard now says they’ve stopped putting a timeline on it. (Kinard says he isn’t paid by the Johnsons to be pod manager, but he’s the owner of the planned bar at the Asylum and currently owns a beer and wine cart at the pod.)

Kinard and Brock Johnson add that cart owners could leave at any time if they felt promises were broken. “Everyone had an opportunity to leave if they didn’t feel good about a scenario,” Kinard says. “But after you sign a lease for the third time, I mean, whose fault is that at this point?”

Aside from what cart owners describe as broken promises, a number of them point to the lack of sanitation as a particular concern.

Jeremy Lucas, who co-owned a cart called South with his wife, Siobhan Passmore, until they moved out of the pod in late 2020, says that portable toilets were always “fetid.” Former cart owners shared over a dozen pictures with WW of human feces smeared on the floor and seats of the toilets.

Given that the portable restrooms weren’t illuminated, says Dax McMillan— whose food cart, Daily Fuel, operated at the pod until it was kicked out this spring—customers didn’t know what they were getting into when they entered a toilet.

And social media has examples of customers complaining about the Asylum, including one who wrote to a cart owner via direct message on Twitter: “Last night my wife went into the disgusting porta-potties and without ANY lights she was unable to see the human shit on the toilet seat and wiped her hand all in it as she was trying to wipe off the seat in complete darkness.” (Five similar customer messages were shared with WW.)

Pat Singh, whose family owned Taj Mahal at the pod, says of the restrooms: “They were disgusting. I never used them. I would go to the gas station nearby.” The Johnsons kicked out the cart in August 2020.

All nine cart owners who spoke with WW said trash had been an ongoing issue: It was often overflowing and it smelled particularly bad on warm days.

Emails from summer of 2020 show the Johnsons told cart owners to help out with emptying trash cans and picking up litter.

In June 2021, the Johnsons told cart owners they would no longer handle recycling at the pod—it would be up to individual cart owners. (The Johnsons threatened cart owners with fines if they didn’t flatten boxes before putting them in the receptacle; once the change took effect, a flyer warned carts they’d be kicked out of the pod if they put recycling in a Minion’s mouth two times.)

Brock Johnson says the change was partly inspired after the recycling receptacle caught fire in August 2020, as did a shipping container and five portable toilets at the pod. He blames political vandalism: “That was during the riots.”

For a time, as five cart owners recounted to WW and Brock Johnson acknowledged, janitorial service was provided by an unhoused man who lived in a shipping container at the pod and was paid a small sum for his work.

“It felt like exploitation of a guy who was desperate for the opportunity,” Passmore says.

Brock Johnson says he was trying to help the man turn his life around. “We caught him rustling around looking for cans, and we started talking to him, and we were trying to help him,” Johnson says. (He couldn’t recall how much the man was paid—he guesses between $200 and $500 a week.)

And the Minions at the recycling center? Everything thrown in them except aluminum cans goes to a landfill, Brock Johnson says. When asked if he thought that was misleading, Johnson said, “That’s not the intention.”

Today, some carts have installed their own makeshift cans to deal with the overflow of garbage: One cart uses a Home Depot bucket, another an empty produce box.

On a recent visit, soggy piles of cardboard boxes lay behind nearly every cart. Customers hopped or lunged over several inch-deep puddles of water at the pod to reach certain carts. The portable toilets didn’t smell great, but no waste was visible. A cleaning log on one toilet’s blue plastic wall showed inconsistent cleanings. (Johnson and Kinard joke that they now have the portable toilet company “on speed dial.”)

Kinard says the pod deals with sanitary issues as they come up.

“I think some folks maybe don’t understand that because they haven’t had to manage such a large, organic thing. It’s like a carnival out here,” Kinard says. “We’ve always had open dialogue with all of our cart owners as much as we can. Some of them are happy, some of them are not. Some of them will never be happy.”

One cart owner texted a statement to WW and asked to remain anonymous. That owner also went to bat for Johnson. The owner said, in part: “While struggling to stay afloat throughout the pandemic, a report boasting about issues within the pod that are all exaggerated by an upset cart owner will only make things worse.”

If the corrals that hold food carts remain the Wild West, that’s because it’s taken Multnomah County and Portland City Hall a long time to implement and enforce adequate rules.

In 2005, Multnomah County had 314 food carts. By 2022, there were 1,039.

Jeff Martin, the health inspector with the county, estimates there are about 70 to 90 food cart pods across the county, but no database to track those pods.

While the city does have some rules for pods, most of which went into effect in 2020, enforcement is based primarily on a complaint-driven process. That means enforcement can be spotty when there’s no comprehensive database of pods. And the city rules are limited mostly to waste storage, grease and pollution control. The city estimates it has conducted inspections of 12 pods in the past year and taken a total of four enforcement actions.

But the lack of rules regarding sanitation and services that pods must provide to cart owners means that pod owners have gotten away with not providing services that any other landlord would be expected to provide, like trash service.

“They have a loophole, and we’re trying to close it [for] these new cart owners who may not have been in the restaurant business before, who don’t speak English, who are getting charged $2,000 a month for a parking spot and getting no services,” Martin says. “We’ve heard many stories about that.”

Local officials have been well aware of these issues at pods for a decade. But it wasn’t until 2017 that the county began to explore how to tackle them.

Martin says county inspectors conducting routine inspections of carts were seeing alarming things at pods: overflowing trash cans, pooling water, carts clustered too close together, fire-gutted carts and graywater spills.

In late 2019, Multnomah County commissioners unanimously approved a new licensing program for pods. It required pod owners to take on responsibilities like pest management, trash and recycling pickup, providing electricity and ensuring that carts use potable water. It also regulated the type of restrooms a pod must provide, and required 5-foot setbacks between carts and rights of way. And it allowed the county to enforce the new mandates with random, twice-yearly inspections.

“People are really interested in making sure these regulations work, because they kind of should’ve been done already, as we’ve heard,” Multnomah County Chair Deborah Kafoury said at the time.

The new rules were supposed to take effect in 2020. Then the pandemic hit.

The county finally launched its licensing program in January. The county rules took effect Jan. 1. But enforcement hasn’t happened yet—the inspections hinge on pod owners applying for a license, and only 10 of them have done so.

“Launching a program that involves permitting—especially when those rules are new—is a slow process,” says Kate Yeiser, a spokeswoman for Multnomah County.

The county’s new licensing program will help the city enforce its own rules by creating a database of pods and reporting issues found during regular county inspections to the city.

Matt Criblez, the city’s environmental compliance division manager, says the city and county “rely on each other’s regulations…the county license closes loopholes that allowed pods to be largely unregulated up until this year.”

Kafoury tells WW she’s “proud of the way [we have] responded to the needs and recommendations of food cart and pod owners and operations, public concerns, and the recommendations of health inspectors and advisory committees.”

Cart owners worry that the cost of the added services will only be transferred to the carts through increased rent; the county put no stipulations on who must bear the cost burden. “I suspect that some landlords are just going to pass it on to the cart owners,” Passmore says. “It’s hard to police.”

Passmore and Lucas were lucky—they both had outside jobs, and their food cart was more of a passion project. The couple worries about the other cart owners they know.

“If they lose their income, even for a few weeks, with any kind of dispute with their landlords, they don’t pay their bills,” says Lucas. “It wasn’t something they just did when they wanted. They were dependent on it.”

Brock Johnson, who received the county’s license paperwork last week, tells WW he hopes the county will make an exception so the pod doesn’t have to abide by the new 5-foot setback requirement between carts. (The county says it might make exceptions depending on pre-license inspections at pods.)

Johnson has yet to turn in his license application for Hawthorne Asylum.

They Paved Paradise

In 2008, Roger Goldingay bought three lots of land along North Mississippi Avenue. Two were tear-down buildings; a third was a vacant lot filled with dilapidated toilets and other junk. His plan was to develop a four-story residential and commercial building.

The recession hit. He had to find a way to pay his mortgages on the land. Meanwhile, a food cart owner asked to park on his property and sell lunch to construction workers laboring across the street.

That sparked an idea: What if he found 10 other carts to park on his land? So Goldingay approached the city with his plans and got sewage and electrical permits, among others.

He spent days driving around quadrants of the city handing out handmade flyers on printer paper to every cart he could find.

“The carts were all over, in people’s driveways, gas stations. I probably left a flyer with 50 to 100 carts,” Goldingay recalls. “That saved my property. It saved my ass.”

For the next couple of years, Goldingay says, landowners sought his counsel on how to open a pod.

“I saw most of them as being opportunistic. They thought it was easy and cheap, and all they had to do was charge carts monthly rent and everything was fine,” Goldingay says. “That wasn’t the case behind any of it. I spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on infrastructure for the carts.”

He went on to open Cartlandia, one of the most famed pods in the city, along the Springwater Corridor on Southeast 82nd Avenue.

Goldingay wasn’t the only landowner who was desperate; there was a boom of pods in the years following the recession, many of them landowners turning their vacant lots into outdoor food courts.

Carts were licensed and regulated by Multnomah County and underwent regular inspections, just like brick-and-mortar restaurants, since they first emerged. But pods never were and had no obligation to provide sanitation services.

Few pod owners provide everything cart owners want. Richard Stein operates one of those unicorns. He established the Hillsdale Food Cart Park in 2012. He provides cart owners, all of whom are immigrants, with trash, utilities, pest management and janitorial services. He employs a pod manager who cleans it four times a day. He says he doesn’t turn a profit.

“I don’t have a profit margin, the expenses and the profits are the same. We keep it clean, that all takes money. Everything’s really primo,” Stein says. “If I wanted to make money, I’d have to raise everybody’s rent. It offers immigrant families the chance to make it in the new country.”

Other pods are dumps.

“I didn’t like to see people doing it in a substandard way,” Goldingay says. “They’d just dump their gray water into their street, no trash pickup—there was a lot of what I would consider unsanitary practices, I didn’t think it was good for the industry. But my way is also expensive.”

Keeping Up With the Johnsons

The walls of Hawthorne Asylum are painted with the faces of Steve Johnson’s children: his son, Brock, and his daughter, Ariel. Brock wears a construction hardhat printed with the American flag.

Steve Johnson was born and raised in Portland. He met his wife, Paula, at a church dance. They moved to San Francisco, where he worked as a real estate broker and later moved back to Gresham to start a family and had two kids, who are now grown.

He and his siblings owned a scattering of commercial properties around the Portland area. The family owns a 150-acre ranch in Joseph, Ore., along with Steve’s siblings.

Brock Johnson and his sister both list themselves on social media as representatives for Young Living Essential Oils—a multilevel marketing company founded in 1993 that touts the ability of essential oils to enhance wellness, including claims they can spur weight loss. (In 2014, the company got in trouble with the feds for allowing distributors to market its oils as a possible cure for Ebola.)

Steve Johnson’s obituary described him as a larger-than-life handyman who fiercely loved his family: “Some favorite hobbies included his salt water aquariums, remote control cars, boats and planes.” The obituary described Hawthorne Asylum as Steve’s last project, and his first undertaken with Brock.

“Their vision together continues on with Brock at the helm. Steve has left an incredible legacy that will live on throughout generations to come,” it reads. “No doubt a ‘YEAH BABY’ was echoing through the concourses of angels—Steve’s signature expression.”

Brock Johnson says his intention at Hawthorne Asylum was always to make something unique alongside his dad.

Johnson lit up when talking about the next project after the bar at Hawthorne Asylum is completed: an area that somehow benefits those with mental health issues, an issue that was meaningful to Steve because much of his family suffered from mental illness.

“I want to build some type of tower in the back area that acts as an elevated seating area as well as a live stage and concert area. And somehow, via this tower, I want to create a way for people to donate to mental health in some way, shape or form,” Johnson says. “Those gears are just starting to turn.”

Posted on

Dutch Bros Stock Looked Like a Sure Thing—Until It Tanked

Last month, a writer at the Motley Fool, a stock-picking service popular with tech-loving millennials, recommended buying shares of Dutch Bros.

“Want to retire early?” Justin Pope asked on “Buy Dutch Bros. The flourishing coffee chain has all the makings of a long-term winner.”

Maybe. But in the short term, one of the few people who might retire early thanks to Dutch Bros is company founder and Grants Pass native Travis Boersma, 51, who owns 65 million shares in the coffee company and became a billionaire when it sold shares to the public last September in what became Oregon’s largest-ever IPO (take that, Phil Knight). But he’s $517 million lighter after the events of last week.

The stock, which trades under the symbol “BROS,” plummeted 37% in after-hours trading May 11, when it reported quarterly earnings and warned that sales at existing stores, a key metric for restaurant stocks, would be “approximately flat” for 2022.

Higher prices for gas and other goods were soaking up dollars that Dutch Bros customers might otherwise spend on Rebel energy drinks and nitro-infused cold brews. Younger customers, especially, had “some discretionary income challenges,” CEO Joth Ricci said (his solution: hype the energy drinks with promotions!).

Investors hated the report and dumped the stock. On Tuesday, it closed at $26.40, up just $3.40, or 15% from its IPO price of $23. Boersma, meantime, is still doing pretty well. Filings with the Securities and Exchange Commission show that he and “affiliated entities” own 64,724,563 class A shares in Dutch Bros. At $26.40, his holdings are still worth $1.7 billion.

That’s down from $5.3 billion, Boersma’s worth late last year, when Dutch Bros soared to a record $81.40. But it’s still enough for anyone, except maybe a Saudi royal, to retire.

Anyone else who owns BROS should probably keep working. This chart traces the rise and fall of Dutch Bros.

Posted on

While Home Forward’s Emergency Housing Vouchers Go Largely Unused, the Agency Gets a Cash Bailout for Tenants With Unpaid Rent

Earlier this month, Multnomah County’s Joint Office of Homeless Services produced a much-awaited report on the number of people in the county without permanent homes.

That report, known as the point-in-time count, is a snapshot that the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development requires of counties in exchange for federal funding for homeless services. As WW reported May 5, this year’s count showed a 50% increase since 2019 in the number of people who are “unsheltered”—that is, sleeping outside or in vehicles.

That rise adds heartache to one of the most frustrating sagas in Portland: the struggle of Home Forward, the local public housing agency, to deploy 476 emergency housing vouchers that the feds awarded it last June.

Tom Cusack is a former HUD official who blogs about housing issues. He, like WW, has been tracking Home Forward’s lackluster effort to employ those vouchers. Cusack says it’s “a total mystery” why Home Forward is still sitting on so many.

Although HUD statistics through May 15 show other agencies in Oregon have converted 54% of their emergency vouchers into leased apartments, Home Forward has done far worse, putting just 16% of its vouchers to work.

Home Forward spokeswoman Monica Foucher told WW earlier this year that the agency expected clients to have used all of its emergency vouchers to secure apartments by the end of this month. She now says that’s no longer the goal.

HUD statistics for the number of leased units, Foucher adds, is lagging slightly behind Home Forward’s numbers: She says 87 units have been leased, 12 units more than HUD reports, and another 60 clients just need to turn in paperwork to get their vouchers. Still, Foucher concedes Home Forward’s progress toward using all its vouchers is “not great.” She could not explain the dismal numbers.

That makes news at the May 17 board meeting of Home Forward of a $2 million windfall “for the purpose of alleviating nonpayment of rent debt of Home Forward households” all the more surprising.

Foucher explains her agency cannot use the vouchers it already has to cover unpaid rent. “It’s an entirely different federal resource,” she says, “primarily directed at securing housing for unhoused people, not those already in affordable housing.”

Cusack says that’s a reasonable explanation given the strict rules around the use of federal housing money.

“I totally get why they can’t use the vouchers,” Cusack says. “I guess one of the beauties of [Metro’s] supportive housing services measure [which helps fund the Joint Office] is, there are a lot of categories eligible for spending.”

The chart below shows how Portland’s use of the HUD emergency vouchers compares with that of some peer cities and the national average. (Source: U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development)

San Diego 480 324 67.5%
Seattle 498 198 39.8%
Oakland 515 136 26.4%
Portland 476 75 15.8%
Sacramento 494 75 15.2%
U.S. Total 70,000 20,745 29.6%

Posted on

Turnout Surged in Final Days as Oregon Voters Continued Trend of Voting Late

For most of the past two weeks, the story of the May 17 primary has focused on voter discontent as measured by a variety of polls. But Oregonians turned in a massive number of ballots in the last two days of the election, with more ballots postmarked by May 17 still to arrive.

That continues the recent trend of voters hanging on to their ballots until the last minute. Here, drawn from statistics compiled by the Oregon secretary of state’s Elections Division, is the percentage of ballots turned in in the last two days of the past five midterm primary elections:

2006 39%

2010 43%

2014 43%

2018 46%

2022 49% (so far; some ballots are still in the mail)

That looks like a tidy trend. It would look less neat if the 2002 midterm election were included (50%). It is unclear what happened that year.

The second point worth making about ballot returns is that the absolute number of ballots that elections officials have received so far (978,224) is 75,000 more than have ever been cast in an Oregon midterm primary. That will grow because this is the first election in which officials will count ballots postmarked right up through election day.

Yet because the number of registered voters continues to increase due of automatic registration, the percentage of voters casting ballots (33.2% currently) looks low. That’s because most newly registered voters are not affiliated with any party and vote at a much lower rate (13.1% so far) than Republicans (47.1% so far) or Democrats (44.9% so far).

Here’s what voter turnout has looked like in the 21st century (note that it is higher in presidential election years).

Posted on

U.S. Rep. Kurt Schrader’s Future Hangs on 90,000 Ballots in Clackamas County with Defective Bar Codes

Sometimes, home isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.

Kurt Schrader, a large-animal veterinarian, is the proud son of Clackamas County soil, but the place hasn’t been good to him in the current election.

First, the county’s Democratic Party endorsed his rival, Jamie McLeod-Skinner, snubbing the home-grown seven-term congressman. Then, county elections officials mailed out ballots with blurry bar codes that must be duplicated by hand before they can be run through machines. The glitch means that Schrader won’t know his fate for days, or even weeks.

Results from Oregon’s 5th Congressional District so far show McLeod-Skinner beating Schrader by 61% to 39% with about half the votes counted. Clackamas County offers a faint hope for Schrader. He leads there by 57% to 42%, but a comically low number of votes have been counted. Schrader has 744 to McLeod-Skinner’s 553.

McLeod-Skinner struck an upbeat tone on Twitter. While it’s still too early to tell, the trend looks good,” McLeod-Skinner said. “There are still many ballots to count, mostly in Clackamas County.”

Schrader’s Twitter feed was quiet, with no new posts since May 16. His campaign office didn’t return calls or email.

The debacle in Clackamas County has plunged Schrader into a waiting game similar to the one that befell Vice President Al Gore in the 2000 election against George W. Bush, when a “butterfly ballot” confused voters in Florida. Gore didn’t concede the race until Dec. 13, after a 36-day legal battle.

Clackamas County officials are scrambling to set up a system for duplicating the ballots, which is no easy feat. It requires forming teams of two, with one person from each political party. One person takes the flawed ballot and marks up a new one, reproducing the voter’s choice. The other checks the work.

It’s slow, tedious work. Clackamas County Counsel Stephen Madkour said he and a colleague assisted with the count this week. It took the two of them six hours to duplicate 144 ballots.

“It was very slow, painstaking, tedious, careful, precise work,” Madkour said at an emergency meeting of the Clackamas County Board of Commissioners this morning.

County officials estimate that there are at least 90,000 ballots that must be duplicated and then machine counted. At a press conference today, County Chair Tootie Smith said she was sending 200 employees to help with the count and that they would work in two shifts, starting tomorrow.

“This was a huge mistake, but this is the hand we were dealt,” Smith said.

The county couldn’t say when the results would be known. The ballots were printed by a company in Bend that has printed ballots for Clackamas County for 10 years, county officials said.

At the emergency meeting, county commissioners sharply questioned County Clerk Sherry Hall’s handling of the matter. An elected official, Hall is responsible for elections in the county. County officials knew about the bad bar codes at least a week ago. Commissioner Sonya Fischer said she emailed Hall last Friday asking if the county could help with the duplication and if elections staff would count votes over the weekend. Hall didn’t respond, Fischer said.

“I would like some assurances that that she ie going to accept our help,” Fischer said.

Hall has a history of clashing with officials seeking better performance from her. In 2012, a temporary Clackamas County elections worker got caught filling in votes for Republican candidates. Ann Lininger, a county commissioner at the time, told WW that she wasn’t surprised.

“There have been so many problems in the elections office during Sherry Hall’s leadership,” Lininger said on Nov. 6, 2012. “I think it’s part of an overall issue of job performance.”

Today, Hall blamed the delay in counting, in part, on the media coverage. “It really delays our process when we have to be pulled out to talk,” Hall said at the emergency meeting.

Secretary of State Shemia Fagan weighed in on the Clackamas mess last night.

“As Oregon’s chief election officer, and a Clackamas County voter, I am deeply concerned about the delay in reporting from Clackamas County Elections tonight,” Fagan said in a statement. “Voters have done their jobs, and now it’s time for Clackamas County Elections to do theirs. In recent days, my office and other counties have offered extra personnel to help with timely reporting. We eagerly await a response from county elections officials on how we can aid in the timely processing of results. I am disappointed that we have not seen more urgency from elections officials in Clackamas County.”

Kurt Schrader is probably disappointed, too. For him, an 8th term in Congress hangs in the balance.

Posted on

Christine Drazan Poised to Win Republican Primary for Oregon Governor

Three powerful women with no love lost for each other will square off in November for Oregon governor.

That field is set thanks to the likely triumph of former House Minority Leader Christine Drazan (R-Canby) in the Republican primary. Drazan leads former state Rep. Bob Tiernan 23% to 18%. No other entrant in the 19-candidate field received more than 11% of the vote.

Tiernan called Drazan to concede on Wednesday afternoon.

“This afternoon I spoke with Bob Tiernan, who graciously conceded the race,” Drazan said in a statement. “While all signs point to a victory, we are still waiting for more ballots to be tallied and for the race to be officially called. We look forward to celebrating the final outcome soon.”

Tiernan confirmed in a statement that he saw no path to pull ahead. “I wished Christine good luck in her campaign to lead Oregon in a new direction by quickly addressing our out-of-control crime problems, homeless camps on the streets, failing schools, and other problems that need to be fixed to unify all Oregonians no matter where they live in the state,” he wrote.

The wait for official confirmation stems from a disastrous election night in Clackamas County, where embattled County Clerk Sherry Hall failed to release a single result on Tuesday. The hand-count of ballots with defective barcodes is expected to drag on through the weekend.

But if the current results hold, Drazan will face off with the Democratic Party nominee, former House Speaker Tina Kotek, and an unaffiliated candidate, former state Sen. Betsy Johnson (D-Scappoose). The three officials regularly sought to thwart each other’s agendas in the Oregon Legislature, before they all resigned last year to run for governor.

Posted on

The Janes is a call to action

We Chicagoans are a proud bunch, and usually with good reason. For many, we’re especially appreciative of our city’s radical history, from the echoing impact of the storied Haymarket Affair to things happening now which will undoubtedly become part of our oppidan tapestry. The aptly named Windy City nevertheless endures as a weathered barometer of this country’s leftist politics.

It’s that past to which we look now, both for guidance and inspiration. “So many activist organizations were headquartered [in Chicago],” says documentary filmmaker Tia Lessin (who codirected Citizen Koch [2013] and the Oscar-nominated Trouble the Water [2008]), “between Students for a Democratic Society, the Young Lords, the Weather Underground, one of the largest Black Panther chapters was in Chicago . . . the Janes were really part of the fabric of that time.” 

She’s referring to the Jane Collective, an underground organization that helped women access abortions and even began providing the service themselves, performing over 11,000 between 1969 and 1973. The motley crew of unlikely outlaws are the subject of a new documentary, The Janes, which Lessin codirected with Emma Pildes. This timely ode opens the annual Doc10 Film Festival on Thursday with two sold-out screenings (it’ll premiere on HBO on Wednesday, June 8); both directors will appear in person, as well as the largest reunion of Janes since 1973.

“I felt particularly thrilled to make a film about Chicago, and a film about Chicago at that time,” says Pildes. “I’m sure there were a million interesting places on planet earth, and Chicago was certainly one of them.”

Pildes has a personal connection to the film, which was codeveloped and produced by her half-brother Daniel Arcana. Arcana’s mother, Judith, was a Jane, and their father was a lawyer who advised the group. Both appear in the film, along with other former members and several people who were associated with the collective either by giving assistance or by benefiting from their clandestine services.

The documentary features an inspired use of archival material threaded through the interviews. Per Lessin, these assets were sourced from a variety of places here in Chicago, including the Chicago Film Archives (she mentions the films of JoAnn Elam, an experimental filmmaker whose best work focused on labor and women’s rights), Kartemquin Films, and even Chicago’s favorite chronicler of the everyday. 

“We were able to use some of the beautiful 8-millimeter camera work of Vivian Maier,” she says, “whose really candid shots of people in the street were pretty extra special to us in painting a picture of what life was like in Chicago.”

The film’s crucial story is anchored by candid recollections charting the group’s origins on the University of Chicago campus—where, in 1965, Heather Booth began referring women to a known abortionist, civil rights leader and surgeon T.R.M. Howard, after learning of a friend’s sister’s unwanted pregnancy—to the “official” establishment of its unofficial and highly illegal enterprise (including details of the labyrinthine process the Janes undertook to evade authorities), to the 1972 police raid that resulted in several members being arrested. As luck would have it, their lawyer was able to delay the judicial process, biding time in anticipation of the Supreme Court’s decision on Roe v. Wade.

Diane Stevens was one of the Jane members arrested during the bust. She’d joined the group after getting her own abortion—a legal, “therapeutic” abortion she procured in California after pleading her case with two psychiatrists and a doctor. She says she was spurred by her desire to help women in the same situation she had been in.

“We were the women . . . there wasn’t a separation,” she says. “That was something we felt strongly about. In my group, ‘professionalism’ was like, where you think of yourself and the doctor, in a white coat, probably male, so apart from you. That wasn’t the case [with us]. These women, we were in it together. We explained everything to them, we provided them with the education, and they trusted us. They opened up their lives to us. We were together.”

Her experience with the Jane Collective inspired her to pursue a career in health care, specifically helping underserved communities. A likely career for an unlikely abortionist, in more ways than one.

“[The police] kept asking where the doctor was,” she recalls about the raid. “‘Where are the men? Where’s the doctor?’ And of course there weren’t any.”

Recently a draft opinion scribed by Justice Samuel Alito foretelling the potential ​abrogation of Roe v. Wade was leaked to the press, resulting in widespread panic over the future of reproductive (and potentially other) rights in the United States. The times they are a-changin’, no. Rather, the more things change, the more they stay the same.

“On the 50th anniversary of the bust of the Janes . . . May 3,” points out Lessin, “that was the same day as the leak of the Alito opinion, 50 years later.”

Doc10 opening night screening of The Janes
May 19, 7 PM; Davis Theater, 4614 N. Lincoln; sold out. Join the waitlist.
The Janes streaming on HBO June 8

The documentary is punctuated by harrowing stories of illegal abortions obtained outside the Jane network, whether self-induced or via the mob, veritable exclamation points that emphasize the importance of access to safe abortions. “We can talk a lot about it and watch things on the news and read things on social media and all that,” says Pildes, “but these are real women dying. And real women that are gonna die and be injured and afraid . . . it’s a visceral experience through these women’s testimony of what this country looks like when women don’t have the right to make this decision for themselves and what the repercussions of that really are.”

The film begins with a woman recounting the story of her mob-affiliated abortion, a decidedly impersonal experience that highlights the terrifying uncertainty around the procedure back when it was illegal. “We were searching for women who used the service, who were willing to go on camera,” says Pildes. “That was sort of the tough spot that we were having.”

How was that issue resolved? “Dory, who starts the film talking about her mob abortion and then later in the film speaks about her Jane abortion, came to us because . . . we had hit every wall, we had no idea what left to do . . . so we placed an ad in the Reader.” 

“We went old school,” she says, “and it worked.”

The old-school method of placing an ad worked, yes, but old-school methods of handling abortion won’t. The filmmakers hope their documentary will help people realize this.

“We’re hoping that this film can really reach people all around the country and around the world to help underscore what it looks like when abortion is criminalized,” says Lessin. “What we know for a fact is that making abortion illegal does not stop women from seeking abortions, it just keeps them from getting safe abortions.”

The Janes is not just a cautionary tale but a call to action for those willing and able to assist should Roe v. Wade be overturned. As Lessin points out, “Illinois looks like it’s going to continue to be a sanctuary state, where people will be able to access abortion care, but it’s pretty clear that the clinics in Chicago and elsewhere will be flooded with folks who are going across the border from Indiana, Wisconsin, and Michigan . . . and swimming across the lake if they have to . . . to get abortion care.”

It’s a sobering thought with an even more discomfiting reality, which should galvanize those looking to help, the unassumingly heroic Janes an inspiration for what might be needed. “That is really going to drain the resources of the local providers,” Lessin continues. “Even as abortion probably will continue to be legal in the state of Illinois, there will be long lines, there will be waiting lists . . . and [it will be] potentially impossible to access care. There will also be people coming in from out of town who will need housing. They may need rides, they may need some help subsidizing and defraying the cost of their travel . . . the people of Chicago can continue in the tradition of the Janes to be of service.”

Posted on

The Devil Bell Hippies: Chicago’s greatest avant-garde band that only kind of exists

Since 2004 Plastic Crimewave (aka Steve Krakow) has used the Secret History of Chicago Music to shine a light on worthy artists with Chicago ties who’ve been forgotten, underrated, or never noticed in the first place.

When I finished college downstate and moved to the Windy City in 1995, the Chicago no-wave scene was breaking apart. While still in school, I’d often driven three hours to catch gigs here, and after my move I caught the last shows by local no-wave stars the Scissor Girls and Lake of Dracula

The original no-wave scene, born in New York in the late 70s, was a confrontational avant-garde movement whose bands used lots of clattery dissonance, and in a nod to that precedent, the Windy City scene was sometimes called “Chicago no wave,” “now wave,” or simply “new no wave.” When the CD compilation Chicken Bomb dropped in 1996, coreleased by the Lumpen Times, it put Chicago no wave in context by juxtaposing young locals (including lesser-known groups such as Xerobot and Monitor Radio) with influential New York no wavers James Chance & the Contortions and international skronkers Dog Faced Hermans. It also seemed like a headstone for the scene.

Scenes don’t just wink out of existence, of course, and the likes of Metalux, the Flying Luttenbachers, and Bride of No No continued to carry a torch for noisy, abrasive not-exactly-rock music. (The scuzzy freak-out bands I played in at the time shared bills with all of them.) With the possible exception of the groups led by Zeek Sheck (I once saw her with an insanely huge ensemble at 6Odum), none were more shambolic and confounding than the Devil Bell Hippies—though they’re barely even a band and have never been part of any real scene. They’ve existed for nearly 40 years without becoming any easier to define.

“There is no real lineup per se, never has been. Anyone can join. We’ve had countless members,” says cofounder Martin Billheimer. “Just say you’re in and you’re in. We might even play a show again someday. . . . Members are contacted by secret communiqué. The main obligation is spiritual.”

Billheimer was born in 1970 in Uptown, and when he was still a child his family moved to the industrial city of Bradford in Yorkshire, England. At age 11, they returned to the Windy City, and Billheimer soon found his musical calling. “The Devil Bell Hippies started when I was 13, in 1983, by me and my best friend at the time, Scott Brewer, in Albany Park,” he says. “The whole mess just grew on from there, attracting members like a Danish attracts flies.” 

While attending Lincoln Park High, Billheimer developed antifascist leanings and got deeply into punk. He also met fellow malcontents on the same path, including future Devil Bell Hippies member Eric Colin Reidelberger. “We were two of maybe seven kids that were into punk rock in our school,” Reidelberger recalls. Billheimer soon dropped out of high school and went to work, taking jobs as a dishwasher, house painter, construction worker, and furniture mover.

Billheimer’s band concept drew from a wide variety of subcultural sources: he mentions sword-and-sorcery movies and kung-fu matinees at the city’s long-gone downtown movie houses, as well as early-80s hardcore (MDC, Verbal Abuse, Earth A.D.-era Misfits). The Devil Bell Hippies also liked late-70s industrial music (SPK, Throbbing Gristle), though they saw it as unintentionally funny in its self-seriousness. 

“We were influenced by Bowie, Culturcide, old horror movies on Son of Svengoolie, Weekly World News, by anti-Nazi and pro-communist sentiments . . . but most of all, by the dreary landscape of north-side Chicago and its gang mythology,” Billheimer says. “The band was then a mishmash of obscure references to north-side lore, played on acoustic guitar and bongos and kitchen pots. We made Jad Fair look like King Crimson in comparison. A hideous thrift-store din . . . at least early on. Later, we got people who could (kinda) play.”

Reidelberger never played any shows with the band, but he recorded with them frequently in those larval years. “I was banging and howling away on some of the earlier cassettes,” he says. “My memories of DBH were basically making cassettes at Martin’s house with Scott, and peppering the recordings with our in-jokes and anything that we found funny, including bell-bottoms—hence the name. This would have been 1984 and ’85. I do remember being encouraged to not be musical. Our approach was very Throbbing Gristle-esque.”

The Hippies’ first proper gig was at a WZRD benefit in 1986, and they had some pretty impressive company: Ono, the Effigies, Naked Raygun. They played for just ten minutes, but part of their set made it onto the 1987 Panic Records compilation What Is Truth?, alongside material by weirdo luminaries Eugene Chadbourne and Phil Minton

Part of the Devil Bell Hippies’ first live set (at a WZRD benefit in 1986) appeared on the comp What Is Truth? in ’87.

“Panic Records was our pal Scott Marshall, who was at WZRD with our other friends,” Billheimer says. “He was the first person to play our first demo, Hellish Hot Bros, recorded in 1984, which had 247 ‘songs’ on it. He was deeply impressed with its barbaric simplicity. This was all mail-order.”

“Early on, we recruited members of the legendary punk band Silver Abuse. That changed things utterly,” Billheimer says. William Meehan would become a consistent member of the Devil Bell Hippies, and Dave Purdie got involved too. “We garbage-picked the percussion—old barrels and toilets, et cetera—which really helped the beat.” Meehan and Marshall, his bandmate in noise group Burden of Friendship, both played with the Hippies at that 1986 WZRD benefit; Marshall added what Billheimer calls “ridiculous synthy drums.”

The Devil Bell Hippies have issued the vast majority of their releases themselves, but Panic Records also put out a self-titled DBH cassette in 1987. “I think several of them even got ordered,” Billheimer jokes. “Most of our releases were live recordings. Weasel got us a few sessions at small studios, and those are the best-recorded ones (this was in the early and mid-1990s).”

The aforementioned Weasel is self-described “brutal prog” purveyor Weasel Walter, whose past and current bands include the Flying Luttenbachers, Lake of Dracula, Behold the Arctopus, Cellular Chaos, and Lydia Lunch Retrovirus. He encountered the Devil Bell Hippies in the early 90s and soon got involved. “Martin Billheimer is a genius—he’s the no-wave James Joyce,” Walter says. “I first saw them in 1993 and it blew my mind. I think the first gig I saw was at the Double Door, and it was utterly hilarious. There were about ten people onstage, all in stupid outfits, out of their minds. It was like Animal House meets early Half Japanese. The club wasn’t pleased. I doubt they played the straight venues twice—ever. I saw them play all the small dumps over the 90s.”

Despite the extreme flexibility of the DBH lineup, the collective has passed through distinct eras during its long history. William Meehan from Silver Abuse colored the band’s sound strongly in the 80s, and around 1990, several of Billheimer’s friends from Indiana joined—at about the same time as they came to Chicago and formed the grungy metal band Wicker Man. “For the next ten years or so, they played most of the gigs,” Billheimer says. “At that point, we started to have loads of guest musicians and really anyone could join. It got more and more chaotic. There were a few gigs that even I didn’t play. Weasel joined about 1993 and gave us a renaissance indeed. Very important, the Weasel Era. He is still in the band.”

Walter has helped organize the Devil Bell Hippies’ unwieldy discography for the beginnings of a proper Discogs page, cataloging their many DIY cassettes of bizarre noise, field recordings, spoken-word rants, sound collages, and overloaded instrumental attacks. He’s also made detailed notes of the dates, venues, and lineups of many of their shows. In his entry for a Lounge Ax gig in 1996, I notice Tye Coon, lead singer of underappreciated noise-rock band Hog Lady. 

“My shit is all in order—they were just into chaos,” Walter says. “I neither claim to be a member or expert, just a fan.” 

Walter’s notes for a show at Roby’s on April 4, 2000, read as follows: “Duc de Zima (vacuum cleaner), Bosco Necronomicon (electric mandolin), Sean Carney (keyboard), ‘Mike’ (vocal, poetry), E-ROL (drums, etc). Laundry Room Squelchers, Cock E.S.P., Stagecoach, and Metalux also appeared.” I was at this gig, but appropriately, I barely remember it.

A few months later, at the Fireside Bowl on July 30, 2000, the Devil Bell Hippies brought a different crowd: “Erazmus Khan the Kruel (TV), Bosco Necronomicon (mandolin), Bronco Asmodeus (beer), Duc de Zima (vo-kills, CD player), Martin of Billheimer (metal), Keith Poseurslaughter (metal), a guy (guitar), Johnny Sweet (synth). Songs included ‘Pile of Poseurs’ and ‘Soapy’s Revenge.’” 

Walter describes an especially absurd DBH set at the Congress Theater, which his band Vanilla (sort of a sarcastic throwback heavy-metal outfit) had rented for a Halloween show. “About 50 people showed up, and that place is BIG—it was ridiculous,” he says. “The Hippies were insane that night, big stage, big sound, total mayhem. Martin had gone out and rolled around in muddy water or something before he hit the stage. It was like a satanic southern preacher.” 

In the late 90s, as Walter remembers it, the band’s momentum faltered—it seemed like most of the folks involved were simply losing interest. “I actually did a Hippies gig where I was the only person who showed up!” he says. “It was just me dancing around with a blanket and some random guy playing trombone sometimes.”

Some relatively Devil Bell Hippies music, written in 2013 and updated in with anti-Trump sentiments in 2018

I could fill several articles this length with gonzo stories about DBH gigs, so I’ll stop with just one more. “DBH got into a brawl with these guys in a very silly band called the Electric Hellfire Club at a Whitehouse show at the Empty Bottle,” Billheimer says. “Can’t remember why it started . . . they were being assholes, we probably were too. It stopped the show, and I was pretty drunk and can’t remember much of it. Nobody got really hurt, aside from a couple bloody noses. 

“The next day, our bass player Phil (aka Bronco Asmodeus) brought Peter Sotos and William Bennett from Whitehouse into where I worked at the time (Rose Records downtown, a job I had for about two weeks), and we all laughed about it. Bennett managed to get his finger broken in the melee—I think someone fell on him onstage—and he had it in a splint. But they seemed really happy that their music was still able to provoke violence. A few weeks later, the Electric Hellfire Club sent word that we should all stop feuding and unite to worship Satan, which I thought was pretty funny.”

By now, you surely understand that the Devil Bell Hippies were more than a band, or less than a band, or something not quite a band. “Performance art” seems too lofty a term for their aggressively weird, off-the-hook underground happenings, but there isn’t really a better one. When I ask Billheimer what makes the group’s sound special, he says, “The appalling lack of cohesion and utter lack of the musical element in music.” 

That’s not to say that some of the folks joining the demented party weren’t respected musicians in other contexts. “We picked up musicians who later made other bands, people who could actually play or were good at faking it,” Billheimer says. “We had special guests: Ron Holzner from Trouble played a TV set once, and we recorded with a fabulous opera singer who called herself Madame Iron Butterfly.”

Billheimer’s high school friend Kevin Junior, later the leader of classy orchestral-pop band the Chamber Strings, even played gigs with the Hippies. “There were so many people,” Billheimer says. “Sometimes a couple of us would show up and recruit band members from whatever dopes were hanging around the club or bar.” 

Devil Bell Hippies - "Bad Night at Mongos"
“Bad Night at Mongos” appears on the 2019 Devil Bell Hippies album Inhuman Resources.

Last year Billheimer published the historical book Mother Chicago: Truant Dreams and Specters Over the Gilded Age, which he describes as “unearthing the crimes of capitalism via neighborhood legends, occult street lore, and the psychology of walking around this city in its new feudal psychological landscape.” Despite his new status as an author, he insists that the Hippies have never broken up. “Devil Bell Hippies is more than a legend, it is a name,” he says. “We return sporadically. No one notices either our appearances or absences—and this is the key to real integrity. Like in Zen, you know?”

Billheimer further claims that a new Devil Bell Hippies recording is in the works, to be titled Pig State Pigs. “It has me, Keith [Pastrick] from Wicker Man, Sally Smmit (the old Hangahar soundtrack nom de guerre of Sally Timms, which she doubtless wishes to retain), and is being finished very slowly,” he says. “I have about half kinda done, and it will be of epic length. Lockdown music. Wanna play on it?”

I just might.

The radio version of the Secret History of Chicago Music airs on Outside the Loop on WGN Radio 720 AM, Saturdays at 5 AM with host Mike Stephen. Past shows are archived here.

Posted on

Emma Hospelhorn of Ensemble dal Niente releases a scintillating solo debut as Em Spel

Gossip Wolf always likes to hear about a new solo album from a member of Ensemble dal Niente—the long-running local contemporary-classical corps has built a spotless reputation for adventurous programming and technical excellence, and its members often pop up in far-flung musical contexts around town. Among the most prolific is multi-instrumentalist Emma Hospelhorn, who has played flutes, keyboards, and bass guitar on recordings by V.V. Lightbody, Mute Duo, and garage band Hollows, and also maintains duos with cellist Katinka Kleijn (acoustic instruments augmented with homemade circuits) and computer-music specialist Ben Sutherland (an electroacoustic collaboration called the Machine Is Neither, which has created music for a dancer triggering sounds with a motion-capture suit). On Friday, May 20, Hospelhorn releases her debut solo album, The Carillon Towers, under the name Em Spel; its pop-adjacent experimental folk features her lovely, elastic vocals, her flute, and her intricately programmed electronics, along with standout performances by guests such as Kleijn and Lightbody. On Thursday, May 26, Em Spel will celebrate with a record-release show at Constellation, with openers Health & Beauty and Elenna Sindler

Em Spel’s debut features guests V.V. Lightbody, Katinka Kleijn, Eric Ridder, Matt Oliphant, Caitlin Edwards, and Brian Deck.

On Friday, May 20, saxophonist Ernest Dawkins presents the local premiere of an ensemble piece commissioned by the Jazz Institute of Chicago in homage to civil rights activist, historian, and educator Timuel Black, who died in October at age 102. Tim Black: Blacker Than Black will be performed by a dozen artists who work in different genres and mediums: Dawkins’s comrades in this multidisciplinary group include dancer Dominique Atwood, trumpeter Corey Wilkes, pianist Alexis Lombre, saxophonist Isaiah Collier, and beat-scene producer and sound artist Brother El. The Live the Spirit Residency, Dawkins’s arts nonprofit, will host Friday’s performance at Hamilton Park Cultural Center (513 W. 72nd). The concert is free and begins at 6 PM.

Last time the Reader checked in on the Curls, they’d just released 2019’s Bounce House, an album of flamboyant, experimental indie pop. At the time they were a six-piece based here, but on their first full-length since then, they’re down to four members who are spread out across three time zones, living in Chicago, Georgia, and Wyoming. On Friday, May 20, Georgia-based label Truth Zone will drop Smothered & Covered, a busy romp whose shaggy, colorful, loose-limbed songs balance themes of dread with a communal sense of joy. The Curls will take a brief tour next month that includes a homecoming show at Cole’s Bar on Saturday, June 25.

As the band’s new bio puts it, “Curls Just Wanna Have Fun.”

Got a tip? Tweet @Gossip_Wolf or e-mail

Posted on

Cave In rise from the ashes with their most direct and focused release to date

The title and story behind Cave In’s 2019 LP, Final Transmission, led many to believe that the eclectic rock band’s two-and-a-half-decade run had come to an end. Following the tragic passing of bassist and vocalist Caleb Scofield in 2018, the group fleshed out the last demos they’d made with him and turned them into a complete record. It seemed like a fitting conclusion to the band’s arc as well as a heartfelt goodbye to the man who’d given them so much of their heart and soul. But to the delight of Caveheads such as myself, the band have decided to carry on. Their new album, Heavy Pendulum (Relapse), isn’t just another collection of songs in their catalog; it’s another step in the evolution of a band whose shifting sound is one of their biggest assets and most defining features. 

Cave In emerged from the mid-90s Boston hardcore scene, and their 1998 debut LP, Until Your Heart Stops, essentially reinvented metalcore with unrelenting, knotty, incredibly complex dual-guitar shredding topped with the even more shredded vocals of front man Stephen Brodsky. Finding out what new musical moves a Cave In record would contain soon became one of the most exciting things about following the band: In 2000, they issued their prog-rock space-metal masterpiece, Jupiter, where Brodsky traded in his scream for a velvety falsetto. They toyed with shoegaze-adjacent indie rock on 2003’s Antenna, then blended sludge metal with space rock on 2005’s Perfect Pitch Black and 2011’s White Silence. Since Scofield’s death, Converge bassist Nate Newton has stepped in, and his grimy, groovy low end is a perfect fit. Heavy Pendulum is Cave In’s most straightforward, focused release to date, with direct heavy-metal riffing laying the groundwork for Brodsky’s signature vocal hooks (and the occasional trade-off with Newton’s menacing growl). Cave In’s beloved stargazing space-guitar leads are less of a presence, but the record is fun, catchy, and heavy as hell—once again, the band show us a fresh new side of their sound rather than something expected. Still, when 12-minute album closer “Wavering Angel” kicks in with “Stairway to Heaven”-style flutes and guitar leads worthy of Steve Hackett from Genesis, you’re immediately reminded that the opulent, prog-loving, metalhead side of Cave In that you’ve loved all along hasn’t gone anywhere.

Cave In’s Heavy Pendulum is available through a Bandcamp.