Rollerball is a rock avant-garde band from Portland, Oregon. After a derivative and somewhat epigonic beginnings immortalized on “Garlic”, the formation regrouped under drummer Gilles and developed a rich palette of approaches singularly aware of the predecessors’ bequest. The line-up stabilized with Mae Starr on keyboards, Mimi Wagonwheel on bass, Bunny De Leon on reeds and later Amanda Mason Wiles on saxophones. The band willingly experimented with heavy editing and multitracking, but almost always within the context of rock aesthetics and well-defined rhythmic structures.
The band does not indulge in extended compositions, which may have limited their appeal among avant-prog fans. The writing is intense and saturated, but maintains a sense of balance and contrast. Their importance is yet to be recognized.
Pounding cadence by Gilles opens the record in a resolute fashion. The steady measure will swell until a plaintive, screeching saxophone heightens our expectations.
Looped guitar adds to a shuffling, almost reverting rhythm on this (semi-) title track. It is almost instantly doubled up by a disoriented, vaguely Beefheartian guitar, which reluctantly scrambles around. Concussive cymbals cackle and jamble. Well place, smeared fade-out will only be interrupted by a warmhearted goodbye from the electric guitar.
This is a more assiduously constructed composition. In the first movement, harpsichord-like keyboard opens and soon meets a full bodied reed section. The combo accelerates but winds down prematurely. In the second movement, Rollerball sits down to a complex avant-prog etude, with piano and rhythm section accompanying an anthemic female vocal. The mix quality brings to mind early U-Totem’s Emily Hay or Deborah Perry of mid-era Thinking Plague. When the saxes return, the electric guitar is too anemic to soldier on and the promising progression lapses. In the third movement, after a solo bass overture, the wind section altercates with the right handed piano. The focus shifts over to a guitar that tiptoes aimlessly, until it is rescued from immobility by the saxes, the drums and the piano.
Dull, idiophonic opening evokes jangling Javanese bonnang. A string instrument responds to the call, dragging behind suspect murmuring. Enter the drums. The string instrument turns out to be nothing more than an electric guitar, even though it continues to strum around with a zither-like timbre. It’s here that Mimi Wagonwheel’s contrabass infrasounds will bolster the drum beat, resurrecting the ghosts of Jaki Liebezeit’s most memorable moments. Sibilant voicings come and go. Clarinet revisits this section, but does not disrupt the increasingly hypnotic flow. The deadpan guitar works out effortlessly on a robotic treadmill. After a short pause, the neurotic rhythm returns, allegro moderato, with the clarinet somehow lingering on. The continuous banging is imperceptibly morphing into a dry, leathery resonance. When the intensity of the beat subsides, we finally notice the indefatigable guitar’s harmonic support that must have been laboring in the background all along. If this track defines the second half of the record’s title, then it does so deservedly.
Holger Czukay’s fans will be excused for their distraction. The backward taped voices employed by Rollerball on this interlude are redolent of Canaxis’s first minutes. Nothing else – lighthearted wooden percussion, windy background effects and sinuous electronics – will matter much here.
We enter a coffee shop noisescape, confounded by children’s voices, and bits of female conversation. When this sketch fades, a song is intoned a cappella. It is closely followed by a melody built from a vicarious quartet of piano-bass-drums’n’tapes. The tune continues to filter in and out between a cappella element and the processed, percussive dash of subtle, instrumental editing. The parenthesis is closed with a honky tonk prattle in the distance.
Bells and percussion introduce a heavily processed female alto that loses little time to gain in dynamic. Mae Starr’s electric violin searches out the same pitch in a wavy manner. This duel makes for a disorienting experiment. Densely scribbled percussive daubings destabilize what could otherwise be a fashion show for vocal chords.
Earth 2 Wood
Bold and straightforward, as only a song can be. Amanda Wiles and Bunny DeLeon initiate this piece on tenor saxophone and trumpet, further bolstered by the piano and rhythm section. The chorus is multitracked and occasionally visited by an unlikely accordion.
Can’t Run the Dogs That Hard
A man reads a poem to the accompaniment of lyrical guitar and piano. The saxophone passage emphasizes the loneliness of these introverted ruminations. This is Rollerball at its most melodic and introspective. But seemingly refracted thuds will keep it from becoming lacrimal.
Line of Perpetual Snow
Wind chimes and accordion move with the urgency of a giant’s breath. The atmospheric circularity will be sustained by a sleepwalking female vocal. After 2 minutes, a more macroscopic image is articulated via multilayered reeds and accordion. And when Amy Denio-like yodelling bursts in, we may just as well join in for a swirl of faux waltz.
Smokey Loved Bacon
Cadaveric dogs bark through the fog of sputtering late evening smoke. Is it Smokey? The sound source is too amorphous to tell, but we surmise that it is animate. This raises our level of apprehension. The release comes when high pitched chords finally take over and drift off in a coda.
If you have a chance, search out Rollerball’s output, especially the recordings from their creative peak 1999-2001.
ROLLERBALL: Garlic (1997)
ROLLERBALL: Einäugige Kirche (1999)
ROLLERBALL: Bathing Music (2000)
ROLLERBALL: Porky Puppet (1998-2001)
ROLLERBALL: Long Walk for Ice Cream (2000-2001)
ROLLERBALL: Trail of the Butter Yet (2000-2001)
The band has continued to record, apparently in a more decisively ‘jazz-rock’ vein. I have not heard these recordings, which does not mean that they should be avoided.