Musicians looking back on the surrealistic, baffling, and sometimes horrific nature of post-9/11 world politics and emotional states (and the battered, near-lunar landscape where they meet) have done much to direct lightning into the neck bolts of that old rock monster, the concept album. There is a kite string running from the thunderstorm fallout of September 11 that electrifies such thematically unified works as Springsteen’s The Rising to the Beastie Boys’ To the 5 Boroughs to Nine Inch Nails’ Year Zero, among others, and has helped midwife more song cycles than the midlife crises of Roger Waters and Pete Townshend combined.
The consistently Victorian-obsessed cello-rockers Rasputina joined the ranks of such artists with Oh Perilous World, an outlandish, Overlook Hotel time warp of an album that collapses the past six years of world history into a nineteenth-century storyline in which Mary Todd Lincoln (that’s the United States) is Queen of Florida and is engaged in a war with Pitcairn Island revolutionaries (that’s the Middle East), who are led by Thursday Christian — son of Bounty mutineer Fletcher. All of which, as you may have guessed, places the album a little further leftfield than the sci-fi ruminations and the Blade Runner panorama of Reznor’s Zero.
Oh Perilous World is an album of juxtapositions, and Rasputina succeeds with the most of them. The strange alt-history storyline works by allowing the listener to step back from the haunting immediacy of current events and yet still gauge the emotional heft and consequence of the pixilated horrors broadcast on our nightly news. “Child Soldier Rebellion,” with its cascading piano lines descending around chilling lyrics and spooky oohs and aahs of wordless horror, is inspired by the children armies of Africa; “In Old Yellowcake” uses the bullet-torn desert chaos of Fallujah as a template for the fall of Pitcairn Island, and the song moves beyond odd metaphor to a cello-driven elegy about yet another firefight that becomes “a new mistake.” Elsewhere, the vocal and cello interplay of “We Stay Behind” shimmers like sun-glinted glass as it bonds cooing pop melodicism and mournful strings with the sad tales of families that must survive the world their loved ones could not.
The album’s concurrence fails, though, in songs such as the lyrical adaptation of a Bin Laden speech, “Choose Me for Champion,” and the dirge-like “Draconian Crackdown.” Both songs use distortion effects to transform the sound of Rasputina’s classical instrumentation into something akin to the thin, buzzing anemia of cliched goth-metal guitar riffage, and both songs lurch from swagger to lumber and find themselves simply staggering to a close. The sound is so incongruent with the rest of Oh Perilous World that it rips you from the album’s insular world, with the overcooked plasticity that comes with aping such a sound blurring some of the distinct edge off the album. The disc’s maelstrom of a penultimate track, “A Retinue of Moons/The Infidel Is Me,” fares far better, as its powerful, swinging cello riff digs into such an elemental rock groove that guitars are rendered moot.
Having loosened their corsets enough to allow modern resonance to finally seep into one of their albums (as well as humor — albeit as black as bomb-charred sand), the members of Rasputina have contributed to the pantheon of good art created in the wake of terrible events. Here’s hoping, though, that next time around we’ll hear an album of great art, with a world less ready to inspire with its televised peril. Or, at the very least, that they’ll leave the rawk-guitar bombast for the Capital G’s and Good Soldiers of Year Zero.