By Mabel Suen
By Kris Wernowsky
By Daniel Hill
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By Allison Babka
By Joseph Hess
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Elstner laughs as he remembers his bandmates' improv the next day, as the trio drinks Blue Moon just after a photo shoot at the same venue. Smith further jokes, "That's when you realized, 'Yeah, they don't really need Andrew.'"
Adds Vavak, "It was funny because I was like, 'You don't want us to funk out,' and everybody was like, 'No.' And then we started to, and then later people were like, 'Actually, that's cool.'"
As this incident demonstrates, Riddle of Steel has become rather adept at challenging (and changing) people's perceptions of its music. Although firmly grounded in the grainy Midwest post-rock tradition (i.e., gritty melodies, rust-colored riffs) the band also incorporates plenty of stoner-rock sleaze and prog-complexity. In fact, the thought behind the construction of Riddle of Steel's songs might surprise skeptics; during our interview, the band dissects its music with the care of a surgeon, analyzing everything from strange tunings to the unorthodox way it uses rhythms and bass lines.
Riddle of Steel's roots date back to the late '90s, when Vavak and Elstner knew each other from the local scene. (The former booked Rocket Bar and played in Five Deadly Venoms, the latter managed a rehearsal space/punk-rock venue.) The pair formed Riddle of Steel in late 2000, after Elstner moved back to town from San Diego; 2001's Burn EP and a 2003 full-length, Python, soon followed.
After having a revolving door of drummers in its early years (among them, Shame Club's Ken McCray, Ghost in Light's Jason House and Russian Circles' Dave Turncrantz), Riddle finally settled on Smith permanently in May 2004. Besides being a talented musician — ferocious and unrelenting live, he had Riddle's songs down cold even before he joined the band — Smith has anchored the trio, giving it a focus and permanence it hasn't had in the past. (Which is an odd paradox: He still lives in Oklahoma City, eight hours away from St. Louis, and also drums in fellow post-rockers Traindodge — which is how he became friends with Riddle.)
"This is the first time I've ever been a part of two recordings with the same drummer," Vavak says. "It's always been one about to leave, or about one who just started. [In the past] it's been fast, quick, awkward, you know, trying to get comfortable with somebody, and trying to see what they can do and what you can do with them. It's always been rushed, and so songs have been thrown together. This took a lot of time. We hustled it, but everything came a lot easier."
Vavak's referring to 1985, Riddle's newest album. The title might be a cheeky nod to Van Halen's 1984 (a big fan, the bassist recently flew to New York to see David Lee Roth and Co. at Madison Square Garden), but there's nothing ironic about the album. Its guitar riffs are pure shit-kicking rock & roll, hooky and monstrous without being cheesy — from the slow-motion campfireburn of "Loose Talk" to the spring-coiled-twang of "Who's the Fella Owns This Shithole?" and the stripped-back, Smashing Pumpkins-like "This Van Burns Love." Elstner has one of the most unique voices in town, with nonchalant vocals as silvery-metallic as Failure's Ken Andrews in places, as menacing as QOTSA's Josh Homme in others.
Even more impressive, Riddle's rhythm section is locked in like a game of Tetris; for instance, "Plenty of Satisfaction" is dominated by Vavak's sinewy, menacing low end and Smith's rhythmic maelstrom, while the cowbell laced through "Underwater" is crisp. Where 2005's Got This Feelin' perhaps was more indebted to the textured prog of the Police (another big Riddle influence), 1985 is classic rock-leaning — without feeling musty or stale.
After working with Carl Amburn on Feelin', the band chose to travel to Kansas City and work with Paul Malinowski (Shiner/Season to Risk) for 1985. While Amburn essentially tracked the band live, Malinowski focused on getting the best version of each band member committed to tape.
"When you record with Paul, you spend two days just recording drums," Smith says. "Each of us had a dedicated time period where we just focused on getting good sounds." Adds Elstner: "There's more of a focus with Paul, on like, getting, naturally good sounds, as opposed to tweaking it later in post-production."
To add to its underground rock pedigree, 1985 was mastered at the Blasting Room (the studio of Descendents drummer Bill Stevenson). But as the band discusses, no amount of mastering can save an album whose songs just aren't up to par. And that's what stands out on 1985: the songwriting. Just listen to "Quiet Now," a vibrant, radio-ready single whose needling guitars and nervous-energy percussion worm their way into listeners' heads — and won't leave.