Lyrics are peculiar things. For some listeners, they are the most important aspect of music, for others they’re just another layer in the mix. Removing the human voice entirely justifies a shift for a composition into a seperate, adjacent sub-genre. Sometimes the intent and emotion conveyed are more important than the diction, there are those who favour an overt approach and others revel in the cryptic. Raketkanon vocalist Pieter-Paul Devos, however, has taken a more unique path. The band may hail from Belgium, but the vocals are not written in French, English or even Flemish. In fact, they’re not in any language at all. Pieter-Paul barks, yelps, shrieks and whispers throughout, but never – knowingly – utters a word you might find in a dictionary. Even Urban Dictionary.
It is not just in their attitude to lyrics that Raketkanon beat a path through less well-trodden ground. Substituting a bassist for a synth player, the quartet have been playing raucous shows with their sleazy, gritty and angular art-rock since the start of the decade. After taking a bit of a breather since the release of their second album in 2015, they are back with their third, RKTKN#3, following their established naming convention.
In the interim, some of Raketkanon’s rougher, more challenging edges have been smoothed out, making RKTKN#3 considerably more accessible than its predecessors. The synth and the guitar have also switched places in the mix, making it even harder to pin their sound decisively to a single genre. They could sound like a noisy garage punk band experimenting with creepy synth-pop, or it could be vice versa. There are gently strummed acoustic guitars as well as a few of the more familiar jagged shards of distorted noise and thick, buzzy synth lines. As a result, RKTKN#3 retains enough of Raketkanon’s existing identity to be recognisable to fans of the previous albums, but also provides an easier way in for the unfamiliar.
Another little Raketkanon quirk is to give their songs actual names rather than titles – which probably makes sense in the circumstances. So the lead single, a stompy track with a great big fuzzy riff, is known as “Ricky”. Elsewhere “Robin” and “Harry” throw a nod in the direction of bands like Tomahawk or Melvins, and Raketkanon certainly would not be out of place on the Ipecac Records artist roster. There are still moments of genuine dissonance, too – “Hannibal” features a disjointed and jarringingly relentless beat, heading towards Melt Banana territory. However, these more challenging and punishing moments are relatively brief and more palatable as a result.
It may well be possible to lightly bake one’s noodle considering whether a song with vocals but no lyrics counts as being instrumental or not, whether it is the presence of a voice or the presence of words that is the salient factor. The quieter tracks, too, could serve as some kind of aural Rorschach Test. Indeed, the band themselves say that it is impossible to misinterpret their songs, so there is theoretically no limits to the meanings people could overlay on them. Whether the listener sees this as a plus or a minus is open to question, but to these ears it is an interesting enough thought experiment, with the vocalisations sitting close enough to ‘proper’ words to not feel like a gimmick.
In the main, reining in the atonal but maintaining their unconventional approach means that RKTKN#3 delivers a satisfyingly quirky listen. This new material may not be as overtly feral as they have been in the past, but it still carries an unsettling, slightly threatening, undercurrent. Like a widely grinning guy on the back row of a bus, stroking a hammer the way you might pet a cat. RKTKN#3 is probably one of the more unique releases of the year so far, and the band’s slightly more restrained approach should draw a broader spectrum of curious and intrepid adventurers into the distinctive universe they have created for themselves.
RKTKN#3 is released on April 5th 2019, on Alcopop! Records