The Raw Dents
By Conrad Amenta | 13 May 2011
There’s something deeply theatrical at play on The Raw Dents, but it’s inspired rather than worn out—not unlike Mike Patton’s surprising, and surprisingly natural, turn on Björk’s Medúlla (2004), wherein a man apparently left behind by musical evolution (or at least relegated to the fringe of experimentalism in metal) found an easy home alongside one of the world’s most inventive mainstream vocalists. What Dead Rider seem to want to evoke, and manage in most places on this record, is the performativity often overlooked by post-punkers. They return from punk’s teeming, populist accessibility to the necessary isolation of melodramatic, gothic technicality and style. They shrug off the allergy to the notion of elite talent that keeps punk stagnantly crying elitism. So it’s perhaps only a small surprise that the two bands I think of most when listening to The Raw Dents are Faith No More and Shellac, like two poles on a spectrum of theatrical metal and punk, and both bands who carved out niches for themselves in tepid genres.
The stars of this show are vocalist Todd Rittman, with his rasping, moaning, virtuoso performance, and Theo Katsaounis, whose fundamentalist drumming is intuitive and minimalistic. Twinned as they are, Rittman lends scope to sparse arrangements and Katsaounis grit and believability to Rittman. The latter turns out to be more essential than you might think, especially when the opening track breaks down into a kind of sadomasochistic, Nine Inch Nails moment, the drums’ brutal interplay of untimed tumbling paired with Rittman’s ecstatic, pained yelps, as if the sticks are striking his skin rather than the drums’. On “L. Rider,” tom fills and highly syncopated accents drive bass synths and Rittman’s caustic act. “The Pointed Stick,” which acts as a kind of thematic centerpiece to the album, takes something that could maybe pass for humor and turns it wry, cynical, and knowing, Rittman almost becoming Bowie-esque as he sings, “I’ll be your savage”—the irony being that songs like this are anything but uncontrolled. “Two Nonfictional Lawyers” starts like something from The Fragile (1999), but Katsaounis’ haphazard sketching elevates it somewhere that seems more creatively free, though no less intentional.
Likewise, is it too much to focus on Katsaounis’ decision to never use a ride cymbal, or to only use his crash as a snare accent rather than as wash? Or to say that these decisions paint the entire album? Because they just might, and in doing so they turn the entire affair into one low-end rumble that maintains a stark clarity. Some few additional percussive elements and melodies are employed with tasteful scarcity, like the sound of breaking glass strategically interwoven in “Just a Little Something,” or the occasional saxophone perfectly balanced with synths. But it’s Katsaounis driving this vehicle, and it allows Rittman to tread afield, to take his necessary diversions. Likewise, “Why I Only Take Baths” is all Scott Walker tremolo and saxophone stabs, but it’s that crystal clear tambourine and sudden tempo shift that acts as the hook on which this song hangs its Lynchian, gothic accoutrement. Only Rittman’s occasional insistence on laying down a cliché guitar solo questions the album’s strict roles.
There seems to be some confusion about how to write about this band—they are described as a “sonic juggernaut” who make use of “bombast” and “chaos”—but The Raw Dents doesn’t seem so much this as a tightly controlled exercise in an extremely well-placed and historically-aware aesthetic. The Raw Dents is not bombastic or chaotic so much as a document of a performance about bombast and chaos. I return to Rittman singing, “I’ll be your savage”—he’s able to be, but that doesn’t mean he is. It’s rare to hear a post-punk band so informed by this tradition outside of Sweden, to hear a North American band so unafraid to turn punk music’s unthinking angst into something more cerebral, atmospheric, and evocative. In that way, Dead Rider aren’t necessarily offering up anything quite new, nor complicating an already-established formula, but they do seem to have cut away at themselves until they were left with only this lethal record—raw, hungry, and full of purpose.