Review: Rose for Bohdan – Let the universe howl in despair, for bohdan has returned
National Music Reviews
Rose for Bohdan
Let the universe howl in despair, for bohdan has returned
Rose for Bohdan were an L.A.-based band active from 1995–2007. Run by Deathbomb Arc label head Brian Miller and featuring an ever-rotating and ever-multiplying cast of musicians and artists, RFB are more of an umbrella under which an entire scene and musical community is housed than they are a singular entity. Across this massive and essential eight-disc box set, Rose for Bohdan cover an innumerable amount of styles and sounds: There’s side-long noise improvisations, indie-punk with hooks as catchy as the plague, strange bits of confounding half-songs, completely wonked-out remixes of Rose for Bohdan’s studio material and … multiple (extremely liberal) covers of Jay-Z and UGK’s “Big Pimpin’.”
Below are individual reviews for each of the eight CDs in Let the universe howl in depsair, for bohdan has returned. Some might pique your particular interests more than others, but the whole set (running just shy of eight hours) is a dive more than worth taking for the ambitious. In short, this box set is a treasure trove of creativity; it’s a powerful testament to the necessity of independent musicianship; it’s a crucial document of Rose for Bohdan’s decade-long exploration of the fringes of pop and experimental music, arguably one of the most flooring and constantly surprising careers of their time.
Disc One: It’s Nice to Know that One of Use is Gonna Die and the Rest are Gonna Make Made Cash
Rose for Bohdan = Kid606 x Squirrel Bait
Rose for Bohdan’s first album is the roughest and loosest of the bunch. It’s Nice to Know is a collection of homespun recordings that, though a long-shot from the refined execution of RFB’s later releases, already displays the group’s characteristic genre-abhorrent, pastiche-friendly approach to music. The bulk of the material rides along sloppy, lo-fi indie rock, such as on the grooving opener “Daniel’s Demise” or “Pere Soso.” The latter stands out for its dry, post hardcore–indebted guitar sounds and garbled vocal delivery. “Get in the car and you drive real fast / Know you do it ’cuz it’s fun,” intones the singer before a second vocalist enters with screamed gibberish.
Within and around these more rockist posts, however, are some strange and wonderful detours. “If It Wasn’t Raw We Wouldn’t Put Our Name on It” features a blown-out recording of whispered rapping atop a degraded sample of “C.R.E.A.M.” and chunky, digitized slap bass. The two-part “Roommate’s Not Home” comprises a delirious collection of dissonant keyboard stabs and mumbled vocal noises. Even the more straight-ahead cuts feature some sort of wonked-out intro, outro or interlude, as if RFB’s early nature wholesale rejects conventional structures or arrangements.
The most striking element of It’s Nice to Know (as well as the collection of live recordings and rarities on the second half of the disc, How to Pronounce our Name) is Rose for Bohdan’s obvious connection to a vibrant music community. Between the kitschy stage introductions of “Theme Song,” the goofy, animated vocal performances and litany of music and lyrical jokes buried throughout the album, this first disc paints a portrait of a band born and bred at house shows and in dive-bar bathrooms. Rose for Bohdan would go on to hone their approach to each of the varying sounds presented on It’s Nice to Know, but this album is no less riveting in its free-wheeling, fuck-it-all construction.
Disc Two: Best Thesis for a Suicide Note
Rose for Bohdan = (White Light/White Heat + The Raincoats)^Eric Zann
Rose for Bohdan’s second album is, on the whole, more minimal and even stranger than It’s Nice to Know. The band’s ties to conventional indie rock and punk music feel even thinner, and the experimental cuts stretch well past the five-minute mark and move toward pure electronica. Best Thesis for a Suicide Note is a strong step toward the insular and idiosyncratic: Absent of both the hook-and-riff-laden indie punk of the later releases and the joyful juvenility of earlier and live recordings, the music here presents Rose for Bohdan as a horde of underground alchemists mixing ill-fitting elements together into precious gems.
The most bewildering and rewarding tracks here revolve around looping percussion grooves, with RFB piling on sample-based collages and exploring minute nuances in repeating rhythmic patterns. “I Like Love” sneaks along with muffled electronic percussion and a menacing chromatic bass line, a sonic formula that appears again on the stilted film-sample assemblage of “Alpha Centari Japanese.” The latter’s eeriness and postmodern sense of play feels like a prescient image of the type of hypnagogic music bands such as Hype Williams would engage with a decade down the line.
Against these mini-odysseys, the few song-based tracks hit all the harder. The moping and belligerent “Bastard Town” ushers the album in with an explosive fervor, while the back-to-back cuts “Away, Away, Away” and “More American (Tower of Bohdan)” highlight clean electric guitar and melodic vocals for an unassuming moment of tenderness. “More American,” especially—with its almost Phil Elverum–esque vocals reminiscing on the passage of time and the sharing of memories—jolts the album out of its drug-soaked, ironic torrent and shows the fragile humanity at the heart of its creators.
Disc Three: Major Label Drugs
Rose for Bohdan = SYR Series + C. Spencer Yeh + Mouse on Mars
Compared to the patient nuance of Best Thesis for a Suicide Note, Major Label Drugs is a bleeding onslaught of sound. Any relationship to the rock music that loosely informed Rose for Bohdan’s first two albums is entirely severed. Instead, the disc comprises more than an hour of increasingly bizarre electronic material. From recordings that sound like experiments with the newfound versatility offered to artists by early DAWS to remixes from prominent contemporaneous electronic musicians (Lesser, Figurine), Major Label Drugs is a glimpse at a road not taken for Rose for Bohdan. Before they became a powerhouse of a rock group, they existed—for just a moment—as a proper outsider electronic heads.
Given the plethora of remixes and the generally more digital textures present here, Major Label Drugs feels more solitary. There’s not quite as much in-the-moment vivacity of some of the more band-oriented material on the other discs. The opening track, “Event Horizon,” begins with a dissonant guitar melody before segueing into a delirious drone piece built out of distorted strumming and hunks of noise. It’s a mind-melting opening to a mind-melting album, offering a glimpse of only one of the crooked pathways that the album ventures down in the following nine tracks.
This version of Rose for Bohdan feels the freshest when their absurdity and individuality peak. “Turkey Day” is a folk song that’s been filtered through a wood chipper and pieced back together from memory, with the guitar strums and hilarious vocals (“If I give you my ring / You gotta be my baby / Buy me a pizza / Buy me a Snapple”) frequently disrupted by spontaneous rushes of electronic sound and jackhammer percussion samples. “What Heavy Metal Taught Us” is built off of single vocal monologue, something of a super-stoned and Ritalin-deprived answer to Alvin Lucier‘s “I Am Sitting in a Room.”
Major Label Drugs ranks low among the discs in terms of easy listening, but its unrelenting “out there”–ness looms over the surrounding music. Rose for Bohdan may have crawled back toward convention in the years to come, but this edge is always in sight—if you listen close enough, you can hear the glitching soundscapes and shattered song structures throughout everything the band released.
Disc Four: Decoration Monster
Rose for Bohdan = Dave Pajo’s entire career / Lolina
Despite Major Label Drugs and Decoration Monster sharing a kinship in their status as the two most rock-averse records in Rose for Bohdan’s studio catalog, the two offer different listening experiences. Against the hermeticism of the former, the latter embodies the collaborative spirit at the heart of the band’s first two albums.
Still, RFB skirt the line between live band performance and tightly structured electronic composition here. The first minute of “Dinosaur Demon” is a warped drone piece built out of (presumably) the band members arguing over a certain counting, turning the studio-banter trope into a musical moment unto itself before a bass-driven post-punk instrumental emerges and the song proper begins.
The 13-minute “Unusable Signal” veers into pure noise music, using degraded digital samples and sounds as a base for the band’s multifaceted exploration of these harsh textures. “Suki Soul” highlights a resonant, minor-key piano riff and delicate electronic percussion. The occasional keyboard dissonances and the swells of garbled vocals that pop up throughout the track complicate the calm at the heart of “Suki Soul,” and the track eventually segues into a 10-second skit built out movie dialogue that almost feels like a gut punch in its sudden switch to outright humor, following a significant stretch of potent instrumental expression.
Immediately following this run of stranger material, Rose for Bohdan dive into the blistering punk number “Still a Favorite Among Prom Queens.” The trio of mock-whining vocals and the essential inclusion of a distorted and wailing violin brings the noisy rock music behind the track into beautiful and strange territory. These four consecutive cuts are but a snapshot of the breadth RFB explore on Decoration Monster, but they are an apt distillation of their possible range.
Decoration Monster contains some of the strongest of Rose for Bohdan’s more “out there” material. The band’s penchant for experimentation never fades, but this disc offers a wealth of abstract sounds, structures and compositional concepts unlike the other seven.
Disc Five: Then Everybody Hugged, “Racism is God”
Rose for Bohdan = Sleater-Kinney’s The Woods + Telepanther + early-’90s Sonic Youth
If you’ve been following Rose for Bohdan’s career thus far, Then Everybody Hugged, “Racism is God” will come as a shock upon first listen. Save the detour into airy drone music on “The Fashion Show,” most of the tracks here are seemingly straight-ahead rock numbers. With the additions of drummers Kerri Kerang and David Gorilla, Rose for Bohdan reinvented themselves as a proper “band.” If the four-album, genre-agnostic combo that precedes Then Everybody Hugged wasn’t evidence enough of the band’s chameleonic strengths, the full-fledged body swap into this new sound should convince any holdouts.
What the band discards with regard to their overt experimental elements is more than accounted for through the first-rate art punk found here. Kerang and Gorilla are a brutalist force, propelling each number with a heap of sweaty energy. Atop these massive instrumentals, RFB deliver some of their strongest, kitschiest pop hooks. The prominent use of twin vocal refrains—such as the repeated call-to-arms of “Do the demise!” on opener “Friends Forever”—lends the music a self-conscious camp, painting these songs as some of the strangest stadium sing-alongs ever put to tape.
Lurking underneath these pop-oriented tracks, however, is the same sense of relentless experimentation that marks all eight discs of the set. “I’m” balances a gritty punk instrumental with a glitching electronic background, featuring the unmissable hook, “I’m the one who keeps the dance floor moving / I’m the one who makes you say you’re in love.” The closing track, “Covered in Monkeys,” is a feat of symphonic indie-rock songwriting, alternating between geometric riffing and transcendent harmonic progressions. RFB have never sounded this confident, this powerful.
That Rose for Bohdan could so easily shape-shift into a practically unrecognizable band is itself a feat, saying nothing of the sheer excellence of the music on Then Everybody Hugged. Within its innate listenability and expert control the liminal zone of avant-garde pop-rock, this album shines as a singular statement of mid-aughts rock music.
Disc Six: There it is, The Creeping Moral Decay of the Past Thousand Years
Rose for Bohdan = (The Rapture x SUMAC & Keiji Haino) + Built to Spill
From its opening tom hits and roaring guitar squeals, There it is, The Creeping Moral Decay of the Past Thousand Years asserts Rose for Bohdan’s forthright and aggressive approach to this, their final studio album. It’s still hooky like its predecessor, but the band feels more focused on building walls of sound and less concerned with mapping out sprawling guitar odysseys. The tracks here are relatively brief, but the fervor on display is unmatched. Even against their most atypical and noisy material, Rose for Bohdan have never sounded this loud. The band hurls this music at the listener with breakneck speed and oppressive force. They exude a group feeling somewhere between pissed off at the state of the world around them and overjoyed at the sheer process of music-making, channeling mid-2000s political anguish and existential dread into a grimy party record.
The humor that’s always hung around RFB’s music is present in its sharpest, most cutting form here. “Advice to Teens” is a profane ode to the the “cool kids,” and “Boy Heaven” is a hilarious mockery of over-zealous music fandom. “I’m Not Racist” is one of the band’s most potent distillations of their unique brand of political satire. On top of the manic, percussion-heavy noise-punk instrumental, the unison shouts of “I’m not racist / You’re not racist / No one in the world has ever been racist” lambaste the idea of well-meaning whiteness or “colorblindness.” Other times, the band engages in silliness for its own sake, as on the delirious and explosive “Bike Song.”
This (relatively) brief record has the most ravenous fire of any disc here. As the end cap of Rose for Bohdan’s studio material, it reads as a purging of all the pent-up musical energy that’s snuck underneath the band’s music from the last 10 years. After spending so much time experimenting, reworking, remixing and refining, all that’s left to do is scream out.
Disc Seven: I Am the Queen of Vanity
Rose for Bohdan = N/A
The last two discs of Let the universe despair comprise a series of remixes, outtakes, live recordings and other “rarities.” For a band that’s already as strange and freewheeling as Rose for Bohdan, these non-album tracks venture even further into pure oddity. Any attempt to classify the band is null at this point, with this massive album ranging from 25-minute drone collages (“Exiting the Cave” with Drug the Corpse) to expanded live versions of previously released songs (A fantastic, rockist take on “What Heavy Metal Taught Us”; a looser, acoustic version of Then Everybody Hugged’s “The Fear”) and beyond.
Some of the finest moments on this collection come from its set of remixes. Two edits by Todd Drootin’s Books on Tape project—of “Dinosaur Demon” and “We Are the Conspiracy”—are of particular note. Especially on this disc’s “Dinoraving” remix, Drootin’s penchant for re-contextualization shines. The original track’s loping drum loops and whispered vocals become the base for an IDM banger, drawing out the buried groove from the recording’s oddity. It’s on the album’s shortest tracks, however, that RFB truly unhinge: The minute-long noise blast of “Bombs” builds a mini-epic out of bits of clipping static, only to segue into the hypnagogic hip-hop of Pho‘s first remix of “Then She Flew Across the World.”
I Am the Queen of Vanity continues to spread the possibilities and reach of the Rose for Bohdan universe, throwing more musical styles and collaborators into their pot. It’s a ways away from cohesion, but it’s nonetheless a fascinating document of Rose for Bohdan and their affiliates pushing their limits as far as their vision allows. Approach this one prepared for a bizarre and conflicted journey and come out with a host of hidden treasures and unexpected musical joys.
Disc Eight: Obsessed w/ my own philosophy
Rose for Bohdan = early Pavement + Sebadoh
The final disc of Let the universe howl is another full disc of odds and ends. Compared to the stylistic clusterfuck of I Am the Queen of Vanity, Obsessed w/ my own philosophy is more unified around the rockist tone of the band’s final two studio albums. Many of the same strengths from those albums appear here: the soaring guitar hooks, the campy vocal refrains (“Dig Dug / Rock n’ roll / Brain turns on / Turns off” from “Dig Dug” is particularly infectious), the lyrical irony, the balance of raw musicality and a nuanced and careful approach to composition.
Among the standout cuts, “Florida Really Is” drags out a single line from Major Label Drugs’ “What Heavy Metal Taught Us” and molds a warm and passionate mini-symphony of guitars out of the original’s grating repetition of a vocal loop. “James Wishes He Was High” is willful in its sloppy, lo-fi messiness, returning to the who-cares mentality that marks RFB’s earliest work. Two versions of the group’s “Big Pimpin'” cover appear here, offering varying takes on the original: The first live cover is a Joy Division–esque post-punk rendition, while the second Pho remix (the first appears on the back half of Disc 1) turns the track into a bizarre, quasi-danceable electronic number.
The live recording of “Solve All the Problems Till There’s No Problems Left” breaks away from the guitar-bass-drums format and delivers one of the band’s most engaging collage numbers. Percussion loops warp and disintegrate, melted together with a host of multilingual vocal samples and orchestral snippets. This boundless mixture of sound mirrors the aesthetics of contemporaneous British label Ghost Box, a sort of re-contextualized journey through centuries and across continents of sound.
The disc closes out with a run of brief non-album demos, coming full circle to the avant-electronic-rock of RFB’s earliest albums. After seven-and-a-half hours of such varying, unrestrained music, the melodic bass riffs, light piano phrases and garbled vocal screeches of “Monsters” breathe a sort of finality: It’s a deceptively simple track, but contains bits and pieces of everything that made Rose for Bohdan great throughout all the preceding discs.
Let the universe howl in despair, for bohdan has returned is an essential collection of music that seethes with unbridled creativity. Better than showcasing the work of just one or a few minds, this box set contains more than a decade’s worth of material from a massive collection of interconnected musicians. After parsing through the limited credits information and scouring online archives, my best guess is that somewhere in the vicinity of two dozen different artists are represented here. There might be even more, but there almost certainly aren’t less. Each of these albums is available for streaming and purchase on Deathbomb Arc’s Bandcamp, and (if you’re lucky) the label might still have a few physical copies available on their web store. –Audrey Lockie