BY MARK GUARINO | THE CHICAGO SUN-TIMES
New converts to Dead Rider may pause at the band’s deconstruction of conventional song structures, but once they cross the bridge, the rewards are evident: This is a band skilled in branding musical territory that is both familiar and wholly original.
“Chills on Glass” (Drag City), the Chicago band’s third album that was released last month, is a carpet-bombing of musical ideas that are both abrasive and wickedly playful. The band, which plays Friday at the Hideout, has crafted songs that combine the melody and sprawl of prog-metal and the explicit swing of galactic funk. Without pretense, the music might be best appreciated as trickster interpretations of territory forged by Black Sabbath or AC/DC, where restless injections of electronic beats, jagged guitars and dark synths fit squarely inside songs that would easily dominate arenas, both for their sexy confidence and heavy rocking.
The songs on “Chills” follow their own odd order — counter-rhythms in lockstep of one another, sudden time switches, and vocals that both whisper and tease. But as much as the songs suggest an unraveling, they are actually tightly structured in driving home a sense of tightrope danger and unease.
Maintaining the balancing act between mad-hatted musical ideas and strict craftsmanship creates “fertile ground” of creativity for the band, says founder Todd Rittman. “The tension of wanting to do things that are a little bit more free-form isn’t as dramatic when it’s all by itself, so given a contrast makes some of the ideas more impactful,” Rittman says.
Rittman says a major touchstone for “Chills” is Sly and the Family Stone, with its choreographed group aesthetic and loose funk underbelly. There is, also unpredictably, an affinity for early 1980s Genesis albums “Duke” and “Abacab,” which were dominated by the punishing drum sound of Phil Collins, polyrhythmic art rock, and buoyant interjections from the Earth, Wind & Fire horn section.
“If you listen to those [albums] from a production standpoint, they’re incredible; they’ll stand up to anything anyone is doing nowadays,” he says. “It’s really easy to overlook just how forward thinking and experimental-sounding those records are because they yielded such massive pop hits. The title song from ‘Abacab’ does everything I want rock music to do.”
Rittman approaches Dead Rider from a lifetime in music. Having been raised in the northwest suburbs and now settled in Logan Square, he co-founded aggro-rock experimentalists U.S. Maple with former classmates from Northern Illinois University in DeKalb. U.S. Maple recorded five albums between 1995 and 2003, a tenure that represented a shining light amid the post-punk collectives of the time. The band left behind a legacy defined by both rampant expressions of freedom and focused commitment to the essentials.
“I’ve been a musician in Chicago my whole life, but I always felt like an outsider here,” Rittman says. “I don’t feel bad about it in any way, but I never felt like I plugged into any scene. But I also feel this is a great place to exist like that because there’s such a huge audience and there’s so many different kinds of music and there are so many scenes that come and go, which makes room for doing your own thing.”
Dead Rider’s core members, including drummer-percussionist Matthew Espy and multi-instrumentalist Andrea Faught and Thymme Jones, worked on the album following the year-long tour cycle of the band’s previous album, “The Raw Dents” (Tizona). While ideas originate slowly — sometimes existing only as a musical nugget or lyrical phrase in Rittman’s head — the band will barnstorm until a song emerges. The band’s fever dream of a video for “Blank Screen” — full of images that mesh their faces onto one another — reflects that tight interconnection.
The band is nearing the end of a North American tour. For songs that play so freely with space, and where the tension in the music is the result of meticulous attention to detail, reproducing them live is a challenge.
“There’s always some amount of reverse engineering,” admits Rittman. The end result comes from the impulse “to just take the ball and throw it as far and as high as possible and see if we can catch it in front of people.”
“It’s just about taking a chance musically and seeing what our limits are and what the music’s limits is,” he says. “We all get a real kick out of just seeing if we can pull this off in real time. Once those things start coming sharply into focus, and we do start to act as a unit, there is a glee that takes over.”