Rodan was – and remains – a vital, quintessential Louisville band. They came up just after Slint, and indeed there were claims that they followed too closely in the footsteps of their classic Spiderland. But to listen to Rodan’s own classic, 1994’s Rusty, and hear anything of Slint (Spiderland came out three years previous) or any other band is to entirely miss the point. Rodan certainly dealt in severe angles and dark corners – like Slint and countless others – but their mix of math-rock precision, metal fury, and an indefinable Southern sweat was distinctive and, even now, bracing to hear.
But they were a band with just the one full-length, and so you might be inclined to think more of the lineage of that document than of the band that created it. Fifteen Quiet Years, however, comprises unreleased and out-of-print material with a killer Peel session to show us there was much more to Rodan than one album, and that the dynamic breadth of that record’s sound is prevalent in their work from day one.
The collection opens with their first official recorded output, “Darjeeling”. Its sound is surprising on a few fronts. For one, it’s awfully polished for a first track from a band. Kevin Coultas’ snapping, intricate drums are in full-force. Guitarists Jason Noble and Jeff Mueller tag-team start-stop riffs that enthrall and then pull the rug out from under you. And Tara Jane O’Neil’s bass, as it always did, melds these elements together and gives them a long, dark shadow. But it’s also a tuneful song, owing as much to the likes of Pegboy as Rodan’s post-rock brethren. It’s a song that reveals the pop sensibility buried deep under the band’s rock gymnastics.
In fact, much of the out-of-print work here, since most of it came from seven-inch singles, is necessarily brief. But it also provides an interesting counterpoint to the more expansive compositions of Rusty. We do get takes from the band’s Aviary demos, which includes early versions of the songs that would make up their proper full-length. Included here is “Shiner” – Rusty‘s briefest track, here more roiling and tense than the 1994 version – and “Tooth Fairy Retribution Manifesto”. On Rusty, this closes the album as a rippling-out statement of purpose, but in 1992 the chasm between Tara Jane O’Neil’s spoken vocals and the frenzy of the band is even more stark. It doesn’t resonate out so much as it implodes in fascinating ways.
Around these early versions of Rusty tunes, we also get great single material, like the stomp and negative space of “Milk and Melancholy”, which – along with “Exoskeleton” – was originally on Aviary but was re-recorded for the “How The Winter Was Passed” single. “Exoskeleton” is maybe the best track here, an expansive big brother to “Milk and Melancholy”, taking all the tension of these other songs and blowing out the ways with careful layers of guitar and brilliant rhythm section work. It’s the kind of expansiveness that not only sets up Rusty, but leads into the Peel session that closes out this collection.
The Peel session shows the band in full possession of its many skills, and nowhere is this more present than the nearly 11-minute closer “Before the Train”. The song builds carefully on a bed of slashing chord phrasings, opens itself up into rolling hooks, and just when you think it has settled into its chug, it upsets the pattern with an off-kilter stomp-shuffle in the middle of the track. It shows all the band’s energy and power and subtlety and patience and ability to seeming take up physical space with its sound. It closes out this non-sequential set well, as if this was the band at its pre-Rusty best.
But what we learn on Fifteen Quiet Years is that, while yes the band built up to its one album, this stuff can stand up to the songs on Rusty. All it lacks is the brilliant cohesion of that album. As it turns out, Rodan didn’t need to do more than this. They all moved on to other projects – Shipping News, Rachel’s, June of ‘44, Come, etc. – because they did all they could with Rodan. And, as this set shows, it was more than just one great record. The album also comes with a download for live versions of these tracks, all sort of charmingly muddy records that remind you that this isn’t just a sound, that there were vital players behind it. While the live tracks may not be quite as essential as the recorded material, they are an important reminder. Especially after the passing of Jason Noble in 2012 and the death of the band’s original drummer Jon Cook earlier this year, it’s a fitting way to remember these players, these great musicians, from a band that never quite got its due but never seemed to care. It just made great music and moved on. But even if they’ve moved on, that doesn’t mean we can’t (and shouldn’t) go back. Sure, this is a companion piece, one that is still less than the album we’ll remember them for, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t essential.
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