CD Review

The saddest songs of all are the lost songs of the caveman, written but not recorded thousands of years ago—they must have been the very first form of what we might recognize as music, and they are remembered now only in caveman heaven. And cavemen themselves (like many early rock N rollers) are remembered primarily for their behavioral excesses and their poor treatment of women—wood clubs and hair-pulling, etc.—while the considerably more pop-friendly Cro-Magnon men—the Elvises of protohuman history—enjoy a reputation as the species' first true artistes. From their slender fingers came the lame cave paintings of 40,000 years ago, and from the Neanderthals' stubby nubs came not much but smears and dots; as an evolutionary competitor to Homo sapiens, they just didn't demo well. Mostly what they left behind them were weapons.

But Neanderthals weren't built to paint; they were built to sing, with a huge, resonant chest cavity and a thickened larynx (and a hyoid bone allowing tongue control just like modern man's, discovered only recently) that would have given them voices “loud, womanly and . . . highly melodic,” according to one reconstruction. The oldest evidence of a human capacity to create any kind of art dates back to the transition period between Neanderthal and Cro-Magnon man—little dusty chunks of rock thought to be Cro-Magnon sculpture, or cave paintings dating a few thousand years younger, for which Neanderthal does not get the credit. For 200,000 years, Neanderthal is thought to have never moved beyond what paleoanthropologist Ian Tattersall calls a “symbol-free” culture, which by definition excludes creative expression, which makes for an inspiring arc toward Homo sapiens, and which accommodates evidence of Neanderthal expression only as geological accident.

But songs don't fossilize. If Neanderthals were born into the Stone Age ready to rock, what evidence could they leave behind? The earliest known music is only 4,000 years old, well past the tenure of Cro-Magnon and into true modern man, noted only because its tablature survived on cuneiform tablets found at Ur. But the earliest known musical instrument is a flute, made by Neanderthals from the thigh bone of a cave bear at least 40,000 years ago, and because it is built to accommodate the modern do-re-mi diatonic scale, you can play any modern music on it today. This rescues caveman from obsolete; instead, he is just very ahead of his time.

So Columbus, Ohio, band Early Man chose a more correct name than they may have known. Though the architecture and vocabulary of cave music have receded into the deepest depths of cellular memory, caveyness as tone and feel lives on today, in the same way that Neanderthal physical traits—toes of uniform length, for instance—survive in our own bodies. And the heavy metal they play is the caviest oeuvre—percussive, unsentimental, aggressive; a resurrection of both cavey sentiment and technique; early Neanderthal tools were chipped from stone using a percussive method, a rhythm section of jaggy spearheads and cudgels to hold those loud womanly melodies down. This is the music of Early Man, who boast more about the weight of their drum set (500 pounds) than the breadth of their discography (one album, one EP) in their press material. They sound extremely deliberately like early Black Sabbath (when they play slow, and when they are at their best) and early Megadeth (when they play faster, which they do too often); they use simple words to sing about frightening things like the search for a definition of self and the mystery of human destiny after death. They sound about 20 years removed from their time, but that's not bad, geologically speaking—they could have been 39,980 years too early, and then no one would have ever known they existed in the first place. And instead this review would be about a shaggy mammoth painted on a wall, and about what it really means to be a human being anyway.


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