Album Review: Sunset Rubdown – Dragonslayer

[Jagjaguwar; 2009]

A record with a name like Dragonslayer calls to mind fantasy prog-metal, perhaps by the venerable Ronnie James Dio. However, the homemade dragon on the album cover makes it fairly clear that this is no metal album.

Instead, it’s the newest release by Wolf Parade frontman Spencer Krug’s side project, Sunset Rubdown. It certainly seems doubtful anyone has ever mistaken Wolf Parade for a metal band. However, Dragonslayer does share more with metal than one might expect from the indie veterans.

Dragonslayer manages to sound both esoteric and accessible, sometimes fluctuating between the two multiple times within a song. The sonic experimentation of past Sunset Rubdown releases has been significantly tightened up this time around. And just when a track seems to be losing itself in abstraction, a hooky slice of pop cuts it back down to size. This dynamic quality is what makes the record so intriguing. Though many of the tracks run relatively long, they never seem to lack purpose.

It’s the epic feel of Dragonslayer that evokes heavy metal’s bombast, though that’s where the tangible similarities stop. The record is vast in scope, full of sweeping atmospheric synths and strings. On tracks like “Dragon’s Lair,” Krug’s echoing voice sounds like it’s billowing down a snowy mountainside.

The album opens with a rising piano figure. “Dragon’s Lair,” which is the homophonic title track (say both “Dragon’s Lair” and “Dragonslayer out loud), is over 10 minutes long, starting with a slow piano-and-keyboard line and building majestically for its duration.

It should be said that Krug’s voice is an acquired taste, but acquiring it is a task Wolf Parade and Swan Lake fans will already have accomplished. Rather than sharing singing duties, as he does with those two bands, Krug is the sole lead vocalist in Sunset Rubdown. Neophytes have a little bit of work ahead of them, but this record may just be one of the best places to start for those interested in getting into Krug’s work.

Dragonslayer sounds a little like a collection of Spencer Krug’s Wolf Parade contributions, or at least what the band might resemble if Dan Boeckner was not a member of that group. While Boeckner’s songs are largely guitar-driven, Sunset Rubdown scatters the instrument sparingly throughout Dragonslayer’s eight tracks.

The crunchy guitar riff on “Idiot Heart,” then, comes as somewhat of a surprise, considering the relative absence of “rock” guitar on the rest of the album. In fact, the track digs up several classic rock idioms, from the aforementioned riff at the beginning to a distorted solo breakdown near the end. Krug and vocalist Camilla Wynne sing a sweet call-and-response on the verse, a recurring device on this record.

Sometimes, Krug’s singing veers away from where it seems like it should be headed, hitting dissonant notes when more logical ones were available in a way that would make a listener with a musical sweet tooth wince. However, it’s hard to say whether this hurts the record or just makes it that much more satisfying when the music returns to pleasing harmony.

All in all, anyone who was expecting Dragonslayer to sound like the new Mastodon album might be disappointed. Otherwise, this record will please fans and newcomers alike.