Cloaked shadows drift in and out of the celestial light. Prodding eyes peer inside a vaudevillian diorama. Gymnasts and interpretive dancers scurrying within the crepuscular scenery. Strange distorted images of the cityscape enwrap the room. And, at the center of it, Rotterdam’s most notorious post-punk inquisitors, Rats on Rafts.
In The Netherlands, Rats on Rafts’ importance can’t be overstated enough. When the band’s debut album The Moon Is Big was released 10 years ago, it coincided with a dramatic shift in Dutch alternative music. Headstrong bands of a more refractory nature were a tough sell for an industry still mired in the DNA of the Dutch East India Company of the 17th Century. If you were quote-unquote weird or rebellious, you were not considered an asset. After seven years of scurrying the squats and underground venues, Rats on Rafts were simply not satisfied with a life among the shadows. Workmanlike, hungry, and proudly homegrown, they played with a perpetual chip on their shoulder, determined to bring their blight to the surface.
Essentially kicking open the door that led to bands like The Homesick, Pip Blom, The Sweet Release Of Death and Lewsberg also finding footing abroad, Rats on Rafts became reluctant harbingers of an ever-expanding internationally recognized Dutch music scene. But, even as other great bands came (and went), Rats on Rafts have a restlessness and sense of adventure that’s nigh unmatched. Their records always feel like rigorous quests to attain sublimity, and their whims often lead them to lost treasures from the past.
They delve into obscure Conny Plank-recordings, Haruomi Hosono-projects, Van Dyke Parks and Sahara blues drifters like archeologists determined to exhume ancient relics. I always enjoy comparing Rats on Rafts to the iconic Marvel Comics villain Doctor Doom: a masked sovereign who searches for elusive cosmic energies to harness for himself. Rats on Rafts want to salvage methods and sounds that slipped through the seams: the rabbit paths not yet explored by their formative influences. At the root of it is The Fall – a band never shy to break from continuity –, adopting a comparable iconoclast streak to their own playground: the city of Rotterdam and its continuously revamping machinery.
On their previous album Tape Hiss, Rats on Rafts recorded, mastered and mixed all the music by analog means to recreate a festering, warped sound of a band tearing it up on stage right in front of you. It was the moment when Rats on Rafts was driven to the peak of megalomania and madness, and the rigorous touring schedule that followed almost caused the entire band to implode. To refrain from going into details (a lot of specifics are chronicled in my book Rotterdam Goddamn: an outsider’s testimony), this is a symptom of a greater overarching issue.
You see, despite likely being the most organized and superconnected live music infrastructure in Western Europe, The Netherlands hasn’t valued bands like Rats on Rafts like more commercially-driven commodities. The result is often that they are underpaid, despite putting just as much blood, sweat and tears into their work as artists being played on the radio. This enormous strain causes harmful schisms that bleed over into the personal relationships within these bands. In this climate, they are set up to fail.
It nearly did Rats on Rafts in as well. But, not only did they persevere, they thrived by making a record like Excerpts that’s teeming with a sonic ambition that dwarfed even Tape Hiss. The band is now expanded as a five-piece: Natasha van Waardenburg (bass), Mathijs Burgler (drums) and most recent addition Doortje Hiddema (keys) joining the two founding members David Fagan and Arnoud Verheul. This rendition of the band is the most sonically flexible yet. Excerpts is both their most accessible and oblique offering yet: “The Long Drought” channels Africal Tuareg rock, “Second Born Child” is an eerie vestige that inspires visions of a David Lynch-created limbo world, and “Tokyo Music Experience” is their most pop-driven song yet, sounding like Devo on methamphetamines.
All things considered, it seems to me a small miracle something as artistically grand as Visions Of Chapter 3 exists in this economy. Of course, the pandemic played a big part in the project coming to fruition, but something tells me the Rats would have pulled off a film-related project sooner or later. Outside of the arcane smoke-and-mirrors amplifying the band’s performance, it occurred to me how David Fagan’s thespian lyricism really hits home within this macabre setting. In my book I theorized that Rats on Rafts’ knack for storytelling flourished because of their collaboration with De Kift, but with the films’ surrealistic visuals adding a new dimension, the words stand out even more. Fagan has made tremendous strides in transposing his personal experiences into fantastical imagery. Guitarist Arnoud Verheul – who also designs the band’s sleeve art – revels in extending his ideas within the tactile space of Utrecht’s TivoliVredenburg – where the project was recorded.
Rats on Rafts were always a band who kept their cards close to their chest – even within the bustle of the Rotterdam scene – , but after watching Visions Of Chapter 3 I have grown to understand their side of the story just that tiny bit better. The band fights a very lonely war to achieve their desired results – and I’m not even talking about the plights of being a more fringe-minded band in The Netherlands. Think about all the scratch takes, struggles to manipulate those pesky tape machines and researching the source material that draws a lot of those elusive eureka moments within the eternal grind. There aren’t many bands in The Netherlands – heck, even in the world – that go the lengths of Rats on Rafts to translate their own imagination into music. We always talk about the obsessive craftsmanship of Kevin Shields within pop music’s mythology, but these types of artists are still out there today. That’s something to cherish, especially when they’re close by.
Like with any good storytelling device, sentiment is always stirring. With their new album and concert film, Rats on Rafts emphasize the cyclical motion: how certain characters arise and fade like a grand spectacle on stage, where certain narratives are broken beyond repair…until maybe a generation later when another giddy bunch of incendiaries pick up the broken pieces to build something new. That’s been Rotterdam ever since the end of the second World War. Last night, I saw a new formation called Tramhaus rip the city’s Keilewerf district a new one playing their very first show. History will always repeat itself, sure, but thanks to the Rats paving the way, the sunbeams behind the next eclipse will shine that much brighter. Now, the shadows have even fewer places to hide.
The album Excerpts From Chapter 3: The Mind Runs A Net Of Rabbit Paths and the film Visions Of Chapter 3 are out now.