This Halloween week’s first entry might be the best of them all. Consider for a minute that the original Rasputina lineup comprised Melora Creager, Serena Jost and Julia Kent: in cello rock circles, that’s the equivalent of Jagger, Richard, Wyman and Watts. Seriously. In the years or centuries – depending on which myth you subscribe to – since Rasputina basically invented the style, Creager has more or less become synonymous with the name. And her dark vision is a hell of a lot more consistent than the Rolling Stones.
For an artist who’s famously old-fashioned, Victorian corsets and all, the topic of the chilling and disarmingly brilliant new Rasputina album, Unknown, is strangely and disconcertingly digital. The songs deal with being hacked, maliciously and anonymously. For that reason, the album is not available online: it’s ten bucks at Rasputina‘s webpage (and at gigs) and worth every penny. The opening track, Curse Tablet sets the stage: this may be a solo album, but Creager multitracks her cello and her vocals, a one-woman chamber ensemble. It’s shocking to hear someone who’s made a career out of channeling a million different characters sounding as vulnerable and wounded as she does here. And yet, she can’t resist bringing in some of her usual sardonic humor on the bridge, a spoof of spammer keyword-ese.
The cello-metal anthem Pastoral Noir blackly and amusingly imagines a showdown between Vesta (Greek goddess of the hearth) and Pan (god of mischief), with a little keyboard torture and a punchline that screams for the repeat button…several times, because the vocals are so heavily processed. Sparrow-Hawk Proud raises the menace factor, a creepy minor-key vamp punctuated by jarring, distorted cadenzas: “I will forever keep you quiet,” intones the mysterious voice at the end of the connection, wherever that might be. After building a harrowing, pulsing backdrop, Unicorn Horn Mounted draws a savagely cartoonish portrait of snobbish Jeb Bush types contemplating a rare kill.
Once again, when least expected, Creager lets down her guard on the gently dancing Bridge Manners: “Reflecting ignorance of sophistication, and ignorant of courtly machination,” the ingenue at the center of the story takes centerstage despite herself: subtext anyone? The savagely waltzing anthem Indian Weed contemplates “What happens when virtue is turned around and preyed upon, made to hurt you,” as any secrets you might have entrusted to the cloud come raining down.
The instrumental title track whispers and wafts along with a ghostly ominousness. The unease continues throughout the surreal, Gorey-esque Emily Dickinson’s Trophy Envelope, which posits a competition between the poet and the Wizard of Oz: Dickinson wins on many fronts, not the least because she never changes her clothes. The creepy, circling Psychopathic Logic, which makes the connection between serial rape, murder and cyberterrorism, is bookended by two instrumentals: the apprehensively crescendoing Catstkill gothic Steady Rain and a graveyard-scape called Untitled I.
Sensed, a moody acoustic guitar-and-strings ballad, ponders a last-day-on-earth scenario between “ghost lovers” – it’s Hannah vs. the Many’s heartbreaking Jordan Baker, but a thousand times creepier. “When you’re traumatized, you take everything as scary, you don’t talk anymore, you just keep it buried,” Creager intones on the murder ballad Taken Scary. For anyone who’s ever been screwed by a cybernerd, or stalked online, it’s delicious vengeance: Creager’s distorted slasher solo is pure bliss. The album ends on a somber note with the instrumental Hymn of the Wormwood Women.
Rasputina’s most essential album is still probably Oh Perilous World, Creager’s scathing 2007 indictment of Bush/Cheney surveillance state duplicity and mass murder, but this is a masterpiece in its own right – and a strong contender for best release of 2015. Watch for it on the Best Albums of 2015 page here at the end of the year. Rasputina are currently on fall tour; their next gig is at the Grey Eagle, 185 Clingman Avenue in Asheville, North Carolina at 9 PM on October 24.