Side-by-Side: Ratskin Records, A Tale of Two Shows
Ratskin Records has a prolific output rivaled only by how puzzlingly unnoticed by the public it seems to go. The imprint has unleashed sounds from noise veterans and neophytes alike, including legends like Bastard Noise and countless local unknowns. I took it upon myself to correct their lack of exposure on Decoder when I gripped two essential new tapes from the burgeoning catalog: Los Angeles-via-Russia krautrock stoner shaman Big Debbie, and Oakland’s scumfuck black-death-grind punkers Black Dog. These tapes feel like particularly good gateway drugs to the vast world of weirdness that is the Ratskin oeuvre, and I hope you’ll agree.
Death metal and its countless bastard-child genres have piqued my interest less in recent years, though not for lack of opportunity. Caught in an apparently endless loop of self-referential tropes and instrumental maximalism, the genre couldn’t have done itself a better favor by fostering the likes of Black Dog. Grisly and guttural, their new tape beckons to a time when the generic boundaries of today’s parlance were nonexistent or irrelevant — a primordial muck oozes through the arbitrary lines between “metal” and “punk,” lumping the disparate sects of consumer kids together at the altar of speed and noise.
Perhaps what really fueled my cynicism for modern metal is that it seemed like a lot of projects had something to prove, something less tangible and immediate than the music itself. This often can fall short of punk’s activist roots and tumble into apolitical posturing. Nobody seemed to be having fun at shows anymore, not even the artists — though to be fair, this could just be a projection of some internal resistance to genuine fun. Black Dog suffers none of that nonsense. You like Black Dog for the same reasons you like Black Sabbath, fried cheese, or petting dogs. It feels good.
Few bands embrace this timeless style and make it truly their own as well — Bolt Thrower, Ilsa, and Black September merit comparison — so here are Oakland’s ambassadors to the punk/metal Valhalla. Few do such a stellar job of preserving the static and feedback of a live-and/or-studio recording. The space and sheer act of performing are central to the sound here.
It’s also worth noting that few bands put on quite as intense a performance as Black Dog, able to fill a drafty warehouse with the density and energy of an open-air metal festival, or transform a residential living-room into a red-tinted torture chamber at the flick of a switch. Costumed antics are practically an afterthought to the spectacular displays of beer, blunts, and sweat drenching the atmosphere.
In a nondescript house in Oakland’s Temescal district not too long ago, I found myself stuck between a small kitchen and a densely-packed crowd watching Black Dog in the living room. My roommate found himself stuck between the crowd and Black Dog. “It felt like I was supposed to stagedive or something,” he reported, “but I literally couldn’t move a muscle without getting pushed back.” And of the theatrics? “I couldn’t tell if they wanted to spank me or drink my blood.”
I guess I can start going to metal shows again.
I couldn’t be more bummed to have missed Big Debbie’s trip up to Oakland from LA. It’s a trip I’ve personally never made, in either direction, but it seems trivial compared to the mental Autobahn-cum-Silk Road journey one takes on “Modern Pagan Dance Trance,” for example. The surprisingly upbeat kraut-boogie number closes out their new tape AB-RA-CA-DEB-RA, an otherwise eerie and foreboding affair. A freaky cold-wave and acid techno influence pervades, clashing in delightful new ways with old-school Roedelius-style synthesizer worship. “Dos Lados” thrusts major-key organ melodies alongside stark ESG-esque proto-rap babbling, while “Desert Transmissions” distorts a similarly bright organ riff with driving lo-fi Jungle beats.
Every track is a left turn, so I can’t speculate what Big Debbie’s live performance would have sounded like. I’ll be forever envious of those whose lack of illness enabled them to catch the Oakland performance on March 12 at — totally coincidentally — the same house where I saw Black Dog. (Author’s note: this humble reporter was caught in a rare downpour and spent the entire weekend of their performance coughing in bed.)
AB-RA-CA-DEB-RA will also be released in double-LP format later this year.