From the shadow of Spiderland: How Rodan and its alumni forged their own musical identity

by Bob Waters

EDITOR’S NOTE: If you want to explore some of the music discussed here further, look no further than Bob’s excellent ‘Rodan + Alumni’ playlist

 

Louisville, Kentucky’s largest city, home of horse racing, the Cardinals, and the world’s largest baseball bat! Situated right on the border between the South and Midwest, it’s the best part of 10 hours drive to the hardcore heartlands of Washington DC and New York City. In the early 80s, for many an angst ridden suburbanite teen, it was the wrong place, right time. A modest scene had formed and did provide somewhat of an outlet, but it remained insular and local.  Louisville had an excess of disaffected adolescents and art school kids, lost in Reagan’s deeply conservative America. Those that could picked up cheap guitars and shouted away their problems like their heroes, Black Flag, Minor Threat, Bad Brains, etc. The arrival of Squirrel Bait signalled a change. For once, a home-grown band started to gain some national interest. Though still drawing heavily from hardcore, their 1987 sophomore record Skag Heaven (now considered a post-hardcore landmark) offered some more complex and thoughtful songs compared to the simple onslaughts of rage offered by their contemporaries. They even toured supporting indie goliaths Sonic Youth. Following their 1988 disbandment, two ex-members (guitarist Brian McMahan and drummer Britt Walfaord) started a new band which would become a Louisville institution.

 

Newly formed, Slint and its members were through with mindlessly smashing out one minute, three chord punk tracks. Spiderland, the product of months of rehearsals in the basement of drummer Britt Walford’s parents’ house, was new in every sense of the word. Six tracks, 40 minutes of ominous atmosphere, jagged time signatures and the group’s signature command over dynamics. Not only had they created a masterpiece, they had done so as kids. A group of bored Louisville 20 year olds looking to fill the summer months. A wave of inspiration had begun spread across the city.

 

Rodan

Rodan came together in ’92. The inexperienced guitarists Jason Noble and Jeff Mueller (both of who had been playing barely a year) joined the more musically proficient Tara Jane O’Neil (bass) and Jon Cook (drums). Taking advantage of Louisville’s relative affordability, the group were able to work simple jobs sparingly while spending hours rehearsing daily in their communal living space. The Rocket House, owned by Cook, was fairy-tale DIY squalor. “It was definitely threadbare, but it was threadbare by choice,” remembered Noble in a 2009 interview. “We had a chance to live, basically, in a friend’s house, that happened to have a lot of equipment, and we had the encouragement to completely be creative all the time.” The rocket house also doubled as a venue, hosting shows by other influential post-hardcore bands of the time such as Unwound and Nation of Ulysses. Both the house and Rodan themselves appeared in the 1994 indie film Half-Cocked as Truckstop, a fictionalized version of the band, with O’Neill in the film’s leading role.

 

1994’s Rusty was the only studio LP the band put out in their short lifetime – named for legendary sound engineer (and Shellac bassist) Bob ‘Rusty’ Weston. Two changes of drummers ended with Kevin Coultas becoming the permanent fixture. Like Spiderland, there were six tracks totalling around 40 minutes. The comparisons between the two were always inevitable: same city and scene, both groups experimenting with longer tracks, progressive song structures lacking traditional verses and choruses, a mixture of hushed and shouted vocals, head spinning time signatures. Despite the many similarities, Rusty’s differences still loom large. Here they present as Slint’s violent, ADD afflicted younger sibling. Where Spiderland ebbs and flows, Rusty zigzags. Changes in tempo and dynamics are more sudden and messy. Nowhere more is this demonstrated than in the jump from tracks one to two, which is effectively a musical jump scare. The Bible Silver Corner starts as a beautiful track, purposefully creating a sense of security, but as eerie piano and feedback creep into the track it belies the album’s true ugly attitude. Suddenly, Shiner hits like a bucket of ice water, grabbing onto your skull and shaking you awake. Hardcore has been resurrected for two and a half minutes. Below the surface, the dirty bass and guitar patterns churn and undulate while Coultas hammers away at the skins maniacally.

 

The centerpiece (and undoubtedly Rodan’s best song), The Everyday World of Bodies, is an impassioned 12-minute epic. It’s an unstoppable surge of powerful riffs and distortion, jerking along before settling in to a groove in unfamiliar 12/8 time. All of its run time is used to build — there are no wasted seconds: the breathy spoken word parts, crunchy distortion leading into fluttering harmonics melodies, the repeated screams of “I will be there, I swear, I will be there” at the climax. It remains a peak that extremely few rock bands have reached; especially in math-rock/post-rock, genres which can fall into the traps of either becoming sterile and emotionless, or insincere and melodramatic.

 

For the b-side the standard remains high. O’Neill’s comparatively melodic vocals are heard more, which contrast with the wilder shouts from Noble and Mueller (an arbitrary point scored over Slint, who famously advertised on the back of the Spiderland LP “Interested female vocalists write 1864 douglas blvd. louisville, ky. 40205”). The Mueller led Gauge is another barnstormer, a creeping labyrinth with a final two minutes of rapturous crescendo, with Mueller’s isolated shout of the song title giving way to a wall of dissonance.

 

Rusty remained their only release until 2013’s Fifteen Quiet Years, a compilation of previously unreleased tracks and a BBC live session recorded for John Peel. On their writing process Mueller says “we spent a lot more time as a band trying to write full-band songs where everyone has partial ownership of the music.” Naturally, in a group of such creative people individuals would want to explore their personal ideas more. Though they disbanded in ’95, the members very much remained musically active.

 

June of 44

Formed by Jeff Mueller and Sean Meadows of fellow east coast post-hardcore band Lungfish, June of 44 were perhaps the closest in sound to Rodan of the bands formed by the ex-members. There was plenty of angular guitars, spoken and shouted vocals, and disregard for typical structure. In contrast to the democratic approach Rodan took, for their first record the two guitarists shared songs they had written alone and the other members simply played along and polished off any imperfections. Three more LPs, an EP and a live session followed in the group’s lifetime.

 

The Anatomy of Sharks EP contains for my money the band’s best material, not least Sharks and Sailors, the 11 minute first track. The runtime recalls Bodies from Rusty, but where that track ran the emotional gamut, Sharks and Sailors prefers to bludgeon the listener over the head with a big distorted anchor. The real stars of the show are Doug Scharin’s drums, with the song’s production amplifying their power and rawness. When played at full volume (which this track demands), they truly sound as if they’re in the room with you. The break at five minutes and subsequent ridiculous riff will clench the fists of even the mildest mannered.

The nautical theme became a big part of the band in their album art, lyrics and song titles. As the group wore the Slint influence on their sleeve even more than Rodan, it was perhaps an attempt at creating a separate and unique identity in their music. Their albums individually never quite reach the consistent heights of Rusty or Spiderland, but their continued development of the idiosyncratic Louisville post-rock sound still makes them a compelling listen, with both Tropics and Meridians and Four Great Points being excellent albums.

 

The Sonora Pine

Tara Jane O’Neill founded The Sonora Pine following Rodan’s breakup, bringing drummer Kevin Coultas along with her. O’Neill had been experimenting in New York with June of 44’s Sean Meadows. He was recruited along with violinist Samara Lubelski, giving the band a somewhat unorthodox dynamic for a rock band. Not much material ended up being produced before their breakup, just 17 songs across two records. The uneven self-titled debut contains the promise of what was to come, and the potential was most certainly realized on II, a more refined and polished effort (though without Meadows, who left before recording started). The sound is altogether more delicate (thanks to the often layered violin parts) and slower than the frenetic post-hardcore of Rodan and June of 44. It’s a more melancholic and at times dejected strain of post-rock, though often a much prettier one.

 

The hushed nature of II, in particular O’Neill’s lullaby vocals which barely rise above a whisper, give the image of the band quietly recording in a suburban living room, hoping not to wake the sleeping residents upstairs. Highlights include the gorgeous groove which closes out Cloister, the mysterious and disorientating hypnosis of the violin led Weak Kneed, and the draping of psychedelic guitar effects in the record’s final two minutes on the nostalgia drenched Linda Jo. Notorious former Pitchfork writer Chris Ott is a staunch supporter, saying of the largely overlooked album “It’s as good as Spiderland. It is as consistent, rich, thematically-enduring; it’s perfect. This is way the fuck up there; total 90’s, forget (just) post-rock, one of the best records from the 1990’s.” There’s no doubt that II deserves more retrospective appreciation than it receives, and in this modern period of 90s fetishism it’s a shame it has slipped through the cracks.

 

Rachel’s

Rachel’s had been the name of Jason Noble’s personal project even before the formation of Rodan. It was only after their breakup that he joined forces with fellow Louisville residents and friends Rachel Grimes (piano) and Christian Frederickson (viola) for studio recordings. The music the trio produced (along with the numerous session musicians and friends, notably cellist Eve Miller) occupies an entirely different space to the other projects. Guitar violence has been put aside for more mature orchestral and chamber compositions. The vast majority of their five studio LPs is instrumental, and though still often classified as post-rock, draws more from romantic and impressionist composers of the late 19th/early 20th centuries.

 

Their discography is deep and impressively consistent, and so rewarding to explore that it deserves a full article on its own. The 1995 debut Handwriting shows a group very much still finding their voice. It’s built around two long and extremely Lynchian pieces, M. Daguerre and Full On Night, the former a lost track off the Twin Peaks soundtrack, the latter a dark dreamlike abyss. Two more albums followed in ’96. The Sea and the Bells is 59 minutes of flowing paranoia. Pretty arrangements are haunted by an undercurrent of dark ambience. Meanwhile, Music for Egon Schiele is their most classical chamber focused album. The sparser, more conservative instrumentation and focus on the string section really emphasise the stark difference from Rusty, which Jason had worked on just two years prior. It’s easy to forget he was still so young, barely in his mid 20s at the time of release. Family Portrait and Promenade are timeless tracks; the record as a whole feels like a recording of some undiscovered manuscripts of a 19th century master composer. But no, just a few bored kids from Louisville. Their fourth record, Selenography, finds them being more adventurous with their sound. Out of the five it is perhaps the closest return to anything rock related, with the bass and drums more prevalent. Noble’s guitar makes are more vocal return (An Evening of Long Goodbyes is their most explicitly indie rock song), along with electronics (Artemisia, The Mysterious Disappearance of Louis Prince) and even a passing harpsichord appearance (Honeysuckle Suite).

 

2003’s Systems/Layers, Rachel’s final release, would be my nomination for their best work. On the surface it’s a simple premise: classical and ambient compositions mixed amongst field recordings of bustling city noise, unidentifiable hums and muffled wooshes, and snippets of half heard conversations. It’s a collage of urban life caught in a daydream, a gorgeous snapshot of busy metropolis under passive observation. Taken as a whole work, it is an extremely cohesive project. Second track Water from the Same Source is their most famous composition. A steady build leads to a cathartic powerhouse, driven by simple minimalist repeating patterns. The result is an undeniable tugger of the heartstrings, particularly when Kyle Crabtree’s drums are let free and bass and snare start to hit home deeply. Emotional muscles are stretched again later on the death lamenting Last Things Last. A rarity in Rachel’s discography, the comparatively conventional track features indie-rock singer-songwriter Shannon Wright providing some poignant guest lead vocals. Esperanza meanwhile compacts an album’s worth of ideas into five and a half minutes. All the while the album remains constantly unpredictable, throwing in bursts of dissonance like Reflective Surfaces and Singing Bridge, before drawing to a neat close on NY Snow Globe recalling the motif of Water from the Same Source.

 

Any preconceptions of pretentiousness in regards to young indie rock musicians aiming for higher art in orchestral/chamber music will evaporate upon either hearing what Rachel’s were able to produce, or by the members’ attitude on their own. They remained their precocious selves and always had the continuing development of the local scene, whatever the type of music, as highest priority. To quote a 1996 zine piece, “Rachel’s aren’t moody artistes. They are goofball artistes”. In an interview from the same piece, the group said “the ideal reaction for a Rachel’s listener would be to go out and start their own band because they get pumped up.”

 

Shipping News

Finally, I want to touch on the band that Jason Noble and Jeff Mueller formed after a year apart following Rodan. The two had been close friends since their mid-teens, and the inevitable chemistry they shared in both performing and song writing made them eager to return to the studio together. Other Louisville musicians Todd Cook (bass) and Kyle Crabtree (drums) made up the foursome, who continued the democratic mode of creating from Rodan, with Noble stating that all four members wrote songs equally. Shipping news signified another switch in priorities, where more focus was put into atmosphere and developing a foreboding mood while still relying on just a standard rock band set up. The songs were usually slow with the bass low and prominent.

 

Of their discography (four albums and an EP compilation), 2005’s Flies the Fields is the standout and the record I personally have listened to more than any other discussed here. The cinematic opener Axons and Dendrites possesses a raw driving power in its pulsating rhythm. Jeff Mueller’s abstract spoken word vocals echo out from some high mountain top surveying the world below. The depressive instrumental Louven unfolds into a heavy, plodding near-doom cacophony that collapses under its own weight. Old hallmarks are still there across the record — Noble indulges in a shout or two amongst the brooding, but the overall effect is more considered and experienced. They take their time over things, letting passages and melodies steep in their surrounding darkness. Sheets and Cylinders is a menacing and hauntingly restrained dirge that feels like it could explode at any moment, and the record closes in the black viscous purgatory of Paper Lanterns – Zero Return, nearly a post-rock interpretation of Massive Attack’s Angel.

 

The final Shipping News release came in 2010 with One Less Heartless to Fear, a live recorded album of new material plus a couple of tracks from Flies the Fields. It’s a fine send off, with the high quality recording capturing an energy and rawness impossible to translate in studio material, and which is highly reminiscent of the Rodan of old.

 

 

 

There will never be a full Rodan comeback tour. Jason Noble passed away in 2012 after a lengthy battle with cancer (One Less Heartless to Fear was in fact released after his diagnosis), aged just 40. Even so, one would not have been necessary. Noble, Mueller, O’Neill and Coultas and the bands they worked with post breakup have produced a diverse glut of material that stands on its own, leaving them with nothing left to prove and no need to tread on already well tread ground. Why return to play the oldies when you’re capable of so much more? There’s even more beyond what has been covered here; bands like Retsin, Per Mission, and O’Neill’s solo work haven’t even been mentioned.

 

2019 marks the 25th anniversary of Rusty’s release. It has since become an important and influential document in both Louisville’s history and the development of math-rock and post-rock. Fellow Louisvillian Jim James of My Morning Jacket even named it one of the six albums that has influenced him most. The Slint comparisons have always been the monkey on the back of Rodan, who are and were too often dismissed as simple copycats and nothing else. Though of course the similarities are undeniable (it could be said that the entire Louisville scene were Slint wannabees), to reduce such an extremely talented group of musicians to lazy copycats is lazy in itself. The extensive catalogue they’ve produced since Rusty’s release should be all that is needed to counteract such claims. In any case, there is too much music to enjoy to get hung up on such things.