Anyone rummaging through the music racks of their local record store might expect an album entitled Dragonslayer to be an ear-dissolving monolith of Iron Maiden-meets-Dethklok crotch-smashing heavy metal, complete with chrome-winged demons, tombstones, and plenty of diacritic marks to ensure the vowels are pronounced with maximum vexation efficiency. But to Spencer Krug (Wolf Parade, Swan Lake, Frog Eyes), a man who’s had countless opportunities to defy musical expectations, this is just another day at the office. And for the sort of boisterous implications that an album entitled Dragonslayer will carry with it, Sunset Rubdown has done pretty well.
In fact, to just about any other musician, this would be self-indulgent. The fancy way the album opens on “Silver Moons”, with strings and noise, a hesitant piano and Krug’s trademark David Byrne yelp: “There were parties here in my honor/Til you sent me away…” This seems like it could be the overture to an imaginary David Bowie opera, complete with pale-colored dance halls, feather boas and eighteenth century European headdresses.
But Sunset Rubdown, and more specifically, Krug, is no stranger to this sort of pluckiness. From the neo-sea shanties on Shut Up, I Am Dreaming to ethereally absurd pop on Random Spirit Lover, this is a band who’s not afraid, either of a lack of commercial and critical success, or of putting too much of their weird selves into the music.
Just take a listen to “Black Swan”; a pair of drumsticks tap out a simple, fractured quarter/quarter beat to the first verse in the song, and without warning are met with distortion and an almost contrarily-chorded music explosion, as if during the session the singer just decided, “Hey, guys, let’s go ahead and freak out for a second before we continue with the song.” Major and minor chords war, electric guitars shriek and wail, and somehow the whole mess gets sorted out at the end of the seven minutes with pleading synths and a now fully evolved chord progression that had been nagging along from the very first minute of the track. This carefully-plodded fracas coupled with Krug’s dark fairy tale melody and lyrics makes for something both exciting and terrifying, as if Terry Gilliam had blessed every note.
Despite all the record’s anomalisms, it’s really gorgeous at its core, and there are more than enough enticing musical phrases to drive the listener back to wrestling with its eccentricities. What also is truly unique is that this side project (or perhaps a more appropriate moniker would be “indie super group”?) has come so far, to the point of nearly overshadowing its creators’ previous works. Surely this is an album that’ll be recalled and savored for many years to come, and remembered as another brilliant stepping stone in the band, and Krug’s, already superb career.