by Tim Den
Throughout their relatively short career, St. Louis trio Riddle of Steel have taken small measured steps with each creative endeavor, carefully molding an unique identity for themselves through doing one thing at a time really well. They might’ve started out aspiring to follow Bluetip’s post-hardcore footsteps, but they quickly came into their own on ’03’s Python, marrying the Midwest’s love of off-kilter time signatures and math rock tendencies with Dischord aesthetics. The result was a combination undeniably “Riddle of Steel” – arpeggios laden with delays, bombastic drumming, dual vocals, bassist/vocalist Jimmy Vavak’s propulsive/hiccupping bass lines – one that the band honed to motherfucking brilliance on ’05’s Got This Feelin’. By then, drummer Rob Smith had already more than settled into the group, providing a thunderous, steady backbeat that completed the equation. The dudes seemed unstoppable, coming off simultaneously catchy and brainy. So the question: What next? Having found their voice and done a damn good job of using it, were the band gonna keep singing the same arpeggiated, math rock-y tunes, or were they gonna dare to move on?
Please refer back to the first sentence of this review. Riddle of Steel have based their entire existence on locking their sights onto a musical goal, refining it, and then exploring other possibilities. Though they haven’t leapt from genre to genre, they’ve certainly used each album to fully expand upon their sonic palette to its fullest. And now that they’ve done the IDM-disguised-as-Midwest-math-rock thing, they’re ready for new ground. Or should I say old ground. And by old, I don’t mean retreading into Bluetipisms again. I’m talking about OLD ground, as in classic rock licks, cowbell aplenty, and hip-swaggering four-on-the-floor beats. Done in Riddle of Steel’s own way, of course, but there’s no denying that 1985 is more “rock” than “math rock.” The arpeggios have been limited to one song (“Quiet Now”), replaced by thick power chords and a more bone basic approach to songwriting. Perhaps the boys’ deeper Midwestern roots are finally showing? Cuz 1985 is like Got This Feelin’ written by Led Zeppelin. Or, at the very least, Dropsonic. It’s more interested in hooks and fists in the air, much less concerned with technical flourishes and cerebral challenges. While older fans might be split 50/50 by this development, I see it as the next logical step in the band’s development. You didn’t expect mid 30-something guys from Missouri to stay away from Heartland rock forever, did you? What, you thought they’d write another album full of “Deeper Still”s? Get real, fella. If you’re a fan, you know that they’re not so one-dimensional. 1985 is Riddle of Steel more comfortable than ever with who they are, retaining all that’s good that they’ve found while bringing in new, honest, from-the-heart elements. The fact that it’s a fine fucking rock record – Midwest rock, brainy rock, math rock, whatever, just pure ROCK – just makes it that much sweeter.