One admirable through-line of the ever-developing Chicago narrative has been the continued proliferation and pursuit of the avant-rock format. Long known for its fertile and adventurous jazz scene, stretching back to the Ď60s (AACM, etc.), Chicago has become a stronghold for experimental music of all stripes. Big Black, The Jesus Lizard, U.S. Maple, Gastr Del Sol, Joan Of Arc ó the city has a way of engendering a brand of confrontational, outsider "rock" like no other. As disparate as the music scene has become, there is still a certain sound only produced here ó a gritty and twisted "offness" that screams Chicago.
Even before fact-checking the one-sheet, I put a positive ID on the halcyon cry of the Windy City within the first 30 seconds of "Motherís Meat," the opening blast of Dead Riderís second album, The Raw Dents. The track opens with a lone piano stab, rapidly eclipsed by sax and a drum beat that sounds like John McEntire circa Bastro (not a bad reference point, in general), before the deeply troubled vocalist enters the picture. No surprise then, that Dead Rider is the work of ex-U.S. Maple-ite Todd Rittman, who is carrying his old bandís (not to mention the Lordís) work of pointed rock deconstructionism forward with this head-scratching effort.
Anyone familiar with U.S. Mapleís Beefheart-ian disembowelment of the standard combo approach to rock and roll will certainly hear a passing resemblance on The Raw Dents. Rittmanís vocal tactics even bring to mind Al Johnsonís hushed creepster wheeze from time to time. While Dead Rider is clearly moving toward a similar destination, its means are decidedly more 21st century, if no less convoluted than its predecessors. At heart, U.S. Maple was still a guitar band. A weird one, but a guitar band nonetheless. Dead Rider eschews the axes for the most part, making stiff drumming and distorted synth the foundation for its lurching, haunted machine funk, almost sounding like a demon spawn of Gary Wilson and Arabian Prince chopped and screwed by Battles. Or if Shudder To Think had all of the bombast and ambiguous sexual tension boiled down to its core art-rock oddity.
Like most good Chicago bands (and food), this one is hard to digest, but letís be clear ó this is a good, weird record, the kind they used to make in New York, and then San Francisco, and that they still make in Chicago. The fact that a band sounding like this would have been no big deal 15 years ago speaks to the dearth of imaginative power currently being flexed by todayís heads. And no, 16,000 Animal Collective knock-offs donít count. Move to Chicago, get cold, and live inside for a few months. See what happens.