[28 June 2007]
Rasputina, perhaps the world’s only punk-prog-heavy-metal cello band, has always been fascinated with an imagined Victorian past, and has, moreover, regularly turned this fascination inside-out like a pretzel. Costumed in the restricted garb of turn-of-the-century womanhood, Melora Creager upends every notion of gentle femininity, howling and screeching and straddling an incendiary cello. Baroque musical flourishes remind us that Creager has been playing the cello since she was nine years of age, yet her startlingly heavy vamps and squawks (try “Draconian Crackdown”) make Yo Yo Ma’s instrument of choice sound like a metal guitar. Archaic word forms and historically-rooted lyrics seem to place Creager’s art in some sort of Decemberists-gone-feral world. Yet she is only pretending to sing about the past or Mutiny on the Bounty or whatever’s on the surface. The sixth full-length Rasputina album is actually about right here and right now. Oh, Perilous World is the one we’re standing in ... and it’s getting kind of dark in here if you didn’t notice.
Consider, for instance, the opening cut, “1816, the Year Without a Summer,” couched in sawing cello rhythms and sung with a Morris dance’s minor-key lilt. On one level, the song is a frank and matter-of-fact description of weird historic meteorology; and yet you can’t help but hear an echo of latter day global warming anxiety in lyrics like: “Grain couldn’t ripen under these conditions / It was brought indoors in urns and pots / go from 95 degrees to freezing within hours / A bitter struggle for the people and starving livestock.” And later, the war on science emerges: “During the most severe year of this little ice age / we looked for scapegoats to blame / Many people tried to blame it on a vast conspiracy / of Benjamin Franklin and his experiments with electricity.” The song is an allegory and a straightforward story ... and the dots are never explicitly connected.
Similarly “Cage in a Cave” is, on its surface, a fairly straightforward exploration of the story of Fletcher Christian, one of the mutineers of Mutiny on the Bounty, who settled on Pitcairn Island, married a Taihitian woman and had children, before, most likely, being murdered by locals sometime in the 1790s. Creager imagines him hiding out secretly, “in a cage in a cave,” avoiding both angry indigenous peoples and rescuing Brits. It’s a song about isolation, depression, alienation, madness and death, gleefully delivered with swoops of cello and timpani rolls.
The direst song on this very bleak album is also the most rocking one. That’s “Draconian Crackdown”, all crunch and fuzz and Zeppelin-esque howl, musically, but lyrically as complex and inwardly rhymed as a Victorian death poem. Metal-face-air-guitar-riffs flare abruptly, splintering drum fills pound in the corners. Toward the front, Creager delivers a deadpan litany of woes (“Goiters / gout / boils / anthrax”) that rhyme and scan and flow elegantly, matching “insurgency” to “emergency” with nonchalant precision.
Literate, carefully constructed, ferociously belted and rocked and drummed, these are songs for a hard-rocking apocalypse. The cello—like the Victorian females who populate these songs—is stronger, and angrier and more desperate than it seems. I’d get out of the way if I were you. This perilous world is about to blow.