Steel of the Century

Riddle of Steel has its back against the record machine.

Near the beginning of a recent Riddle of Steel show at the Bluebird, guitarist/vocalist Andrew Elstner's amp went on the fritz. As he crouched down onstage to fix it, bassist Jimmy Vavak and drummer Rob Smith started improvising an instrumental jam. An extended jam, in fact, with faint hints of jazz and hefty doses of funk — music that's quite unlike the band's usual skull-splitting rock & roll.

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.'"

Riddle of Steel: Like Corey Hart, this trio wears its sunglasses at night.
Matt Hughes
Riddle of Steel: Like Corey Hart, this trio wears its sunglasses at night.

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.

"The much more elusive thing about being in a band is actually being able to write a really good song," Elstner says. "No songs, no bands. We don't sound like fuckin' Tom Petty, but I have so much respect for the guy, like, to [be able to] write such timeless fucking songs. The two-disc anthology is intimidating, it's like, 'My God, the guy has written so many hits.'

"It's easy to write a complex song, but it's really hard to write a simple, straightforward song that is just as fresh-sounding and exciting."

Much of 1985's tunes should be familiar, as the band has been gradually introducing them into sets over the past year. In their raw, purest form, Riddle's tunes are ear-blasting and face-melting without distorting to painful levels. That the band is such a formidable live presence should be no surprise, though; this year alone, the band has been on several tours around the U.S. and trekked to Europe, including a high-profile gig opening for Fishbone in France for "seven or eight hundred people" at a venue called La Nef.

"It's the kind of place where you pull up, before you can get out of the van, and go to the back to start loading out, there's a team of five dudes already moving your stuff for you," Smith recalls. "This was the whole rock & roll treatment — you have steak dinners backstage, you have your own dressing room."

But no matter what size venues it plays in the future — or how its music evolves — Riddle's sonic consistency will always make it stand out.

"I still think it's cool that there's an element that I can hear in the stuff that we've just done, that I can hear in their very first stuff," Smith says. "Something about the vocal melodies [Elstner] comes up with, [Vavak's] rhythmic bass-playing. It's a testament to a great band's sound that they can get away with recording with three different drummers — and you can still put on any of those records, and know that this is Riddle of Steel."

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