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Rats on Rafts
Excerpts From Chapter 3 - The Mind Runs A Net Of Rabbit Paths Richard Foster , February 1st, 2021 09:53

Rotterdam's Rats On Rafts return in a new form, stil restless

It’s too much of a throwaway line to say that with their third longplayer, Chapter 3 - The Mind Runs A Net of Rabbit Paths, it feels like Rats on Rafts have never been away. It’s not really the case, either. Still; this new record does suggest that David Fagan and co have turned up again on your doorstep unannounced, demanding to be let back in, whether you like it or not.

A lot has changed since the band’s 2015 release, the brilliant Tape Hiss, one that set them apart from the vast majority of their “Dutch underground” peers. The time since then has been filled with bedding in new line ups and a seemingly self-enforced exile from a Rotterdam music scene, a scene partly shaped by the band’s activities over the last decade. Despite the odd gig or single, I must admit I was expecting them to call it a day and become like a newer version of the legendary “lost”, subliminally influential Rotterdam act, the Rondos. And regardless that Chapter 3… is made by “another” Rats on Rafts, I am glad that the release proves that there is a new dawn unfolding for them. Chapter 3… is a record that has their trademark sense of restless grandeur and tough tunefulness.

As ever with this cussed, wilful Rotterdam act, a sense of homegrown autodidacticism looms large throughout. Nothing is here that shouldn’t be, or added to please or compromise. Every detail is created on the band’s terms and presented in the manner they feel suits the material best. Analogue recordings in Rotterdam, hours of reassessing and reassembling studio jams, extravagant sleeve art made by the ridiculously underrated guitarist Arnoud Verheul, it’s all in the mix. And there is a clear progression here: the burning sense of wanting to make their own message heard, which marked their accessible debut The Moon Is Big, has now crystalised on Chapter 3… into a set of runic symbols forged by the band, decipherable if you want to get a hang on matters.

There is a marked sense of paranoia, given away to some extent by the song titles such as ‘The Long Drought’, ‘Crossing the Desert’, and ‘The Rise and Fall of the Plague’, you could be forgiven for thinking that they make proceedings sound like some people’s opera from the Cultural Revolution. These tracks are slightly fevered, and have a dreamlike quality that also puts me in mind of The Fall around the time of This Nation’s Saving Grace or Bend Sinister. Music mapped out behind a veil. I have no idea what the gnomic press notes mean outside of singer David Fagan and bassist Natasha van Waardenburg’s love of MES-style mystification and cryptic messages. Lots of the lyrics are concerned with secret missions, chases, being caught, false identities and masterplans. All in all, Chapter 3… sets up a number of hoops and rabbit warrens that the listener sometimes has to negotiate to get a grip on what’s going on.

The record is stuffed with great tracks, but one that really should get more attention is ‘T.M.E.’, a brilliant single that is built like a T34 and able to keep on keeping on, thanks to an absurdly simple refrain and a relentless beat. The introduction of that growling bass undertone to emphasise the refrain is a classic Rats trick, looking to go into overdrive to induce some kind of heart surge in the listener.

How has such a remarkable release come about? Knowing Rats on Rafts, I would wager, it’s down to stubbornness, guts and maybe a canny reassessment of what has gone before. In this sense their last full length, the collaboration with Dutch punk troubadours De Kift, has also finally shown its worth. I wasn’t a fan of this release, it felt too much like a satisfying end to a live collaboration that was in many ways a cabaret. Now, the lessons learned from presenting music as a staged event seems to have transferred wholesale into the vibe of Chapter 3…, which feels like a fully rounded work, with a plot and guiding theme. Not just an album, a mysterious story.

Alongside this “recorded stagecraft” there is a palpable sense of depth and “arty canniness” to Rats’ new material. It’s a more intellectual hinterland which can be explored at a slight remove from their trademark pounding rhythms and growling guitar battles. This new ground has been mapped out by the meta-musicianship of Natasha van Waardenburg, who is no stranger to a piano and taking a lead vocal, courtesy of her own (great, “lost”) bands, De Nieuwe Vrolijkheid and Appie Kim. A recent tour in Japan with their great allies, Franz Ferdinand has also, I feel, left something behind. These factors come through in the sense of remove and ingeniously staged, “multiple viewpoints”, which emphasise the record’s theatricality and paranoia. It’s the sort of approach you can see in a Kurosawa film such as Rashomon. Or (if you want a complete projection by this reviewer), J.A. Caesar’s mind-blowing rock operas such as Kokkyō Junreika. The sense of being in the floating world is also invoked in a more general way by the guitars, which quickly adopt obviously Japanese stylings on their hypnotising single, ‘A Trail of Wind and Fire’.

This last few years seems to have been stir crazy on Planet Rats with bust ups and realignments galore. But, despite disappearing from view in their home city, they’ve returned in a new form to a wider world, and with that old sense of being a talismanic band intact. This is a brilliant record. Chapeau.