Roselit Bone ‘Blister Steel’ Review: contributor David Dierksen dives into Portland group’s Gothic Americana infused sophomore album.
By David Dierksen
Attempting a simple sonic description of Blister Steel, the newest release from Portland collective Roselit Bone, is almost committing a disservice to the music, akin to describing a piece of abstract art by talking about the colors and canvas used. It may give you a vague idea of the picture, but in no way does it prepare you for its impact. You gotta see it to understand it. And man, you really gotta hear Roselit Bone.
In the simplest terms, Roselit Bone is the musical embodiment of southern noir and all the numerous sordid tales, settings and time periods that fall under that umbrella. The music’s admittedly retro devotion to country music’s earliest days might be enough to momentarily sucker listeners into thinking they’re listening to something safe, a product of nostalgia reflecting simpler small-town days. And that’s when Roselit Bone smashes the image to pieces with portraits of the dark underbelly of those supposedly innocent times.
Blister Steel is the music of bleak and violent desert landscapes. Of backwoods crime enterprises. Of violent loners on suicide missions. Of revenge, murder, sleep deprivation, twisted religion, substance abuse and ill-advised romance. The music is versatile, at times ear pleasing, at times scary as shit, unified by the devilish vocals of ringleader Joshua McCaslin, whose blend of country crooning and demonic yelps would make the likes of Jon Spencer, Michael Gira, Nick Cave and the Reverend Horton Heat nod their heads in tacit respect.
On the opening title track, McCaslin describes the horror of a nameless evil, the “silent prophet of the new red god” who ends up subjugating the narrator by forcing him to “drool through the fingers of his hot gloved hand.” Backing up this tale of horror are acoustic guitars, drums so heavily reverbed that a single kick drum beat seems to infinitely linger, as if the song was recorded in a canyon. Soaring trumpets and a spooky choir of aaaaaah’s paint this sonic embodiment of a Cormac McCarthy western.
And this leads into the spectacularly titled “By the Glint of Your Horns,” a sinister southern blues ditty that starts relatively subdued but soon escalates into a cacophony of screechy guitars, near-operatic wails, and vocal yips. It’s an ascension of noise inversely proportional to a descent into hell. Listening, my own pop culture Rolodex conjures up images of the drug and booze-infested, cult-harboring countryside of True Detective’s bleak Louisiana from season one.
“Leech Child” is plodding and menacing, simplistic until all hell breaks loose in the last act, a distorted mélange of horns and guitar noise that I imagine would go down swimmingly at Twin Peaks’ recently resurgent Roadhouse.
“My First Name” is a shouted fireside sermon at the gates of hell about… well, the lyrics are near indecipherable what with the heavy reverb and the cyclonic instrumentation… but one passage refers to an old sad friend “chewing through the piles of the rotten dead and sucking 100,000 feet of cock.”
As the record progresses, the songs settle into something more traditional and less terrifying, at least musically speaking. “Tie Dye Cowboy” is maybe the most uplifting track from a musical standpoint, one I imagine my grandparents could have cut a rug to at one of Texas’ legendary country dance halls. But check this lyrical sample:
He began to see faces in the shadows / and as he looked at his children / he saw shadows in their faces / so he unhinged his jaw and swallowed them all / sewed his skin back on / and walked off into the Sonoran sunset.
(Sleep tight, grandma).
“Where Our Cast Light Doubles” could serve as a pleasant palette cleanser out of a 60s country songbook, although you’d be hard-pressed to find a 60s country crooner describe himself as a “cold motherfucker” (at least on tape). Similarly, “Riders on the Wall” jaunts along with a joyous trumpet accompaniment, but peppered throughout the marble-mouthed vocal delivery, there’s the psychedelic imagery of death, drinking, and drug abuse.
The record ends with the country ballad “Like So Much Garbage,” a relatively straightforward number about classic heartbreak, perhaps mercifully void of nightmare fuel, despite the somewhat melancholy subject matter.
At this point, you might be thinking, “Gee, this sounds like a barrel of laughs and all, but maybe now’s not the right time to delve into a symphony of despair.” To which I counter that for all its darkness, Blister Steel is actually a lot of fun. In fact it’s downright therapeutic. It wears its noir genre trappings proudly, allowing those of us who are overwhelmed with anger and depression at the state of the world to channel that negativity away from online noise and into the depths of our imagination, where we can craft narratives and fantasies of dark but ultimately harmless catharsis.
Roselit Bone provides a method of valuable escapism, one that doesn’t ignore the ills of the world, but instead absorbs them, reprocesses them, and reroutes them back to the audience in sometimes palatable, many times disturbing, but always unflinchingly evocative ways. You know, like all good art should.