Evanston/Chicago “indie/chamber rock” band Renegade Lightning Rebellion’s first CD, “Four Statues,” came out in July. The musicians are Brian Stark – songwriter, vocals, sax, percussion; Brandon McGhee – saxophone, micro-Korg (analog synthesizer), percussion; Jessie Hunt – violin, vocals, percussion; Keith Bjorklund – oboe and theremin (hands-free electronic instrument); and Jason Weaver – guitars, mandolin, bass. They have multiple and varied musical backgrounds.
They chose the Chicago area, and Evanston in particular, Mr. Stark says, because they “wanted to get out of Texas. There were six of us [some not in RLR] who came here together.” Good fortune brought the musicians together.
Before coming to Evanston, all had at one time lived in Texas. Mr. Stark, Mr. McGhee and Mr. Bjorklund moved here together in 2009 from the University of North Texas, where they studied music. Mr. Stark and Mr. McGhee were jazz students – primarily saxophone – and Mr. Bjorklund classical and jazz oboe and saxophone.
Ms. Hunt came from Texas, too, to study violin at Moody Bible Institute, and met the others here. While studying classical music, she played in a Chicago gypsy music group.
Mr. Weaver studied classical guitar performance at Northwestern University, graduating in 2007, and now teaches in Evanston and elsewhere. Mr. Bjorklund did graduate studies in oboe at Northwestern University and received his degree this year. The RLR members have a connection with the Evanston Vineyard Church, but Mr. Stark, the band’s songwriter and lead singer, says while there is “not overtly Christian meaning” in RLR’s songs, his religious upbringing informs them. The songs on “Four Statues,” says their bio at ReverbNation, “explore themes such as conquest, the capriciousness of nature and the nature of personal integrity.”
“Four Statues” happened because of a journey Mr. Stark took two or three years ago, he says, backpacking (and “couch-surfing”) through Europe. He went, he says, “to see the world, build some momentum,” observing, looking for inspiration and taking note of encounters he would eventually turn into songs. In Bern, Switzerland, he came across four very old statues that impressed him and ultimately gave him a primary focus for an album.
The first short song, “Münster Cathedral Man,” sets the tone for the album: melodic, yet contemporary, with elements of rock, classical, jazz and other genres; sophisticated rhythmically and tonally; self-conscious yet fluid.
“Münster Cathedral Man” is the name Mr. Stark has given the sculpture that is a part of the Berner Münster cathedral in the Old City of Bern, the construction of which began in 1421. The song opens with Mr. Weaver’s acoustic guitar playing a sedately arpeggiated, almost Baroque, line of music with an organ-like sound. Mr. Stark enters singing, with an unusually high-pitched, reedy voice reminiscent of both saxophone and countertenor. The sound fits in with the instruments – and the statue – but the melody is not traditional. Nor are the words: “A fellow who sits on the side of a church/ As he covers his left eye/ Will claim to see nothing but right/ As he curses your riches and praises his rags “Mr. Stark occasionally goes flat and sharp in this tune, but it works: The roughness of the pitch goes along with the pitted griminess of the old, twisted statue itself. The violin enters with a harmony that ties the two together.
The other three Bern statues are fountains. The song, “Statue #2: Kindlifresserbrunnen,” or the “Fountain of the Eater of Little Children,” is disturbing, as is the statue itself. The fountain was built in 1546, but its original significance is lost, according to atlasobscura.com. An enormous figure sits on a pedestal in the center of Bern, holding four infants, two in a sack. He is eating one of them; its head is in his mouth. The music based on this piece begins with percussion: stomping, drumming, then guitar, violin, tambourine, pile on. It moves into an Irish sound on Ms. Hunt’s fiddle. Mr. Stark sings while the oboe lends a melancholy undernote to the otherwise almost cheerful tune to the song of the ogre who carries off the town’s children, eating them one at a time.
A somewhat lengthy “Statue #3: Simsonbrunnen” features Mr. Stark and Mr. Weaver. This statue is of Biblical Samson holding open the jaws of the lion, whose head is twisted around to face him, its great fangs showing but unable to reach the armed warrior. Samson himself wears a ferocious expression between his black hair and beard. The guitar opens with an urgent strumming; then voices enter, crooning. The micro-Korg synthesizer is next, and the instruments spread out into layers of sound, into which the violin pours. The words are disturbing, accompanying music that sounds like an oncoming army, intimidating. “I’ve twisted your neck and I’ve broken your jaw,” it goes, the words of Samson to the lion he masters. The lion answers: “It’s true that you’ve ruined my jaw and my neck / but by the look in your eyes / I can see that the true wreck is you.”…Female vocals and violin sound ghostly over bass sounds and deep drumming that sound like cannon and guns. The song ends with a skirling maelstrom of instrumental sound, including the eerie theremin, named for its Russian inventor, Léon Theremin.
“Statue #4: Zähringerbrunnen”is based on the statue-fountain representation of the coat of arms of the Zähringer family, an upright brown bear wearing armor, clasping in one hand the pole of a raised flag on which is depicted a lion, holding a shield by his side. A cub eats a honeycomb at his feet, undisturbed by its surroundings. The song begins with acoustic guitar, and male and female voices sing in unison, first describing the statue, then telling a story of what has brought its characters to this point.
The statue pieces are interwoven with other songs, also inspired by Mr. Stark’s travels and by the musicianship of the band’s members. As he says, everyone has studied music formally, but “we play other stuff, stretching ourselves beyond what we’ve learned.”
“Nature,” a song that occurs between “Statue #1” and “Statue #2”, opens with clapping, stomping, a klezmerish reed, voices, arpeggiated oboe that sounds here, as elsewhere, rather like a Renaissance shawm. The song mocks the difference between what was once nature and beauty and what is now “a tourist attraction,” says Mr. Stark. It starts out: “I thought I’d try to climb a mountain. / Got as far as the ski lift, /but then I had to turn around. / It was just too much for one like me to handle / Clumsy human avalanche in funny hats… / The call of the wild ….” A medieval drone follows. “I thought I’d rummage through a forest/ It was so nice, they gave us maps that showed us/ where the trees had been cut down.”… ‘Bears and lions used to live here, but that was some time ago. / They couldn’t stand the hiking boots and Nalgene bottles” The violin adds its lush and mournful voice to the singer’s observations and the song continues. … “It’s too dangerous to go here barefoot/ You’re much safer with a shotgun in your briefcase.” It ends with the disillusioned question, “I’m here for the adventure of a lifetime … and if it’s not here, then where?”
Renegade Lightning Rebellion’s members all have their “own forms of percussion,” Mr. Stark says, that include drums, tambourine, clapping and stomping. Each member of the band also plays more than one or even two instruments on the CD, just as they do in performance. Mr. McGhee plays a micro-Korg, which he says is a “little synthesizer that makes weird sounds. I make the sounds myself.” Mr. Bjorklund plays the theremin, an instrument that has been used in film scores such as Alfred Hitchcock’s 1945 “Spellbound” and Guillermo del Toro’s 2004 “Hellboy.” The theremin makes a sort of eerie, vibrating sound – like the sound effects used at one time for flying saucers.
These musicians are an extremely talented bunch of young people, and the music they make is extraordinarily interesting, an amalgamation of different genres of music and different modalities of sound. Further, when performing, they play together with sharp cognition of each other’s musical whereabouts – and when on stage, each others physical locations as well. RLR’s timing is impeccable regardless of whether they are live or recorded.
When the band was putting the CD together, they say, each RLR member recorded his or her part in their own home. The parts were put together later, mixed by RLR member Brandon McGhee and finally mastered by Collin Jordan at the Boiler Room in Chicago. The art, primitive but colorful, on the CD album is done by local artists and put together by Madison McCord.
The band put on a concert to celebrate the release of Four Statues back in July. It was held, with another local band, in the home “salon” – the Pig ‘n’ Weasel – setting of the Rogers family in West Evanston/Skokie. Mr. Bjorklund has since left the band and moved back to Texas. Both he and the other members of RLR say, however, that this does not mean he will not be part of the band again one day in the future. In the meantime, however, two new people have joined RLR: Marty Tilton, a trumpet jazz studies grad from Roosevelt, and Michelle Horvath, who studied harp at the University of Michigan, “a free-spirited and whimsical musician,” says Mr. Stark.
People who missed the performance at the Pig ‘n’ Whistle who find contemporary, exploratory music and genre fusion exciting should, if they can, go hear RLR at the Beat Kitchen, 2100 W. Belmont on Nov. 4, where they will be playing the same evening as Julie Meckler and Daniel Ellsworth and the Great Lakes. It is, unfortunately, a 21-and-over show, so it starts at 9 p.m., and 18-20-year-olds are not admitted. But it is good stuff. Tickets for the whole shebang are only $10.
This writer hopes Renegade Lightning Rebellion will play again in Evanston soon.
“Four Statues” is available for streaming, downloading, and in CD format online at http://renegadelightningrebellion.bandcamp.com/.