Instead of keeling over, Cleveland's Keelhaul pulls out of dry docks to motor through more metal sludge 

Keelhaul with Russian Circles and Call Me Lightning
9 p.m. Sunday
the Conservatory
8911 N. Western

No matter how unfashionable your music is, if you hang around long enough, you're likely to see it come into style. Cleveland sludge- and stoner-metal band Keelhaul is a prime example.

It toured voraciously in the late '90s and early '00s with acts such as Mastodon, but went on hiatus after their third album, 2003's "Subject to Change Without Notice."

The quartet ended the break last year with the appropriately titled "Keelhaul's Triumphant Return to Obscurity," which arrived in perfect time to capitalize on an increased appetite for moody heavy metal that runs from meditative expansiveness to face-melting fury.

Despite intermittent vocals, Keelhaul is similar to instrumental tour mates Russian Circles, thanks to windy arrangements that eschew verse-chorus-bridge structures for broad, tension/release patterns.

But if time's transformed the musical landscape, it's only grazed Keelhaul.

"We're still as wacky as we ever were, playing the same shit. We haven't changed. It's just that people's tastes are going to hell, so they've begun listening to shitty bands like us," said drummer Will Scharf.

It looked like it was over after an ill-fated European tour in support of "Subject to Change." Shows were canceled, tempers lost and pockets emptied. At the end, bassist Aaron Dallison was forced to sell his bass in Belgium for rent money.

"It was the pinnacle of a seven-year tower of frustration," said guitarist Chris Smith. "When you're done sculpting something, you just walk away from it."

It was months before the guys would talk to each other. But having known one another for so long, it was inevitable they'd reconnect for some occasional jamming. There were only, maybe, four shows in as many years, but in 2008, Keelhaul began talking about recording a new disc.

"It's like being in a band with three bitchy girlfriends," Scharf said. "You know what everyone's going to say, and what each other's going to do, and somehow it works, so you don't want to break up."

Another thing that helps is that Keelhaul doesn't necessarily write like other bands. Guitarist Dana Embrose will contribute several songs, but most of the music is culled from hour-long jam sessions, which Scharf revisits weeks, months, even years later, pulling out the few great parts, which they then attempt to use as the foundation for new songs.

In the old days, Scharf used to do this with his double-cassette player, taping tasty riffs out off rehearsal recordings into songs that, by the time he finished, would be all but unintelligible to his bandmates. Computers make things easier, but Scharf reckons Keelhaul has enough material for seven albums, each with 10 riffs apiece.

"We've got a pretty good, weird musical telepathy thing," he said. "Now the stuff we come up with is done with each other in mind."

In some twisted masochistic sense, it's only encouraged the bandmates to make things harder on themselves.

"The last couple records in particular, we've been really challenging ourselves," Dallison said. "We're not so much playing in our comfort zone. I'm going to play this crazy, stupid thing and mess it up, so I have to do a zillion takes."

"Triumphant Return" revels in epic power, and the response has been positive from fans and critics alike. Recent tours have been more financially rewarding than any the group has ever done, easing the stress of travel.

"When you don't eat as much shit on the road, it changes things," Scharf said. "We've sold a lot of copies of the new album, I can tell you that, but the bottom line is, 'Do we like it? Are we happy with it?,' and I think for the most part, we are."

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