In the ‘90s, indie rock was a different beast, an ecosystem clearly derived from and still closely connected to punk. Only alt-weeklies and zines covered its artists, and discovery meant scouring liner notes, regularly perusing your local record store, and going to a venue where you trusted the booker’s taste, even if you didn’t know the bands playing. I know this comes up a lot when old jerks like me are talking, but pre-Internet saturation, seeking out the music was just as important a part of the process as actually hearing it.
At least among the people I knew, owning a copy of Rodan’s Rusty was just as important to being clued-in about Louisville post-hardcore as Slint’s Spiderland, and you needed to track down a copy of Half-Cocked on VHS, the charming 1994 independent film where Rodan played a band called Truckstop, formed when a bunch of high school teens steal a van and hit the road. (I have a distinct memory of the employees at my local Erol’s Video being pretty annoyed with me for my pesky special-order.)
Rodan were only around for two years, from 1992 to 1994. Still, they had an outsized impact, both in influencing kids my age to start bands, and breaking ground with the various projects their members went on to found: Rachel’s, June of 44, Retsin, Shipping News, Crain, The Sonora Pine. (Bassist/guitarist/vocalist Tara Jane O’Neil is also known for her luminous and varied experimental solo work.) Their discography, as you might expect, is fairly slight, which makes these five tracks, released as The Hat Factory 93 (the Baltimore studio in whose archives they were found, plus the year they were recorded), such an event. These are early versions of songs Rodan fans already know; four are from Rusty, the other first appeared in full form on the rarities compilation Fifteen Quiet Years, released in 2013 after guitarist/vocalist Jason Noble died from cancer.
Here, the band is flush with exuberance, making their intricate and unpredictable song structures seem like second nature. Chaotic epic “The Everyday World of Bodies” is choppier and noisier; O’Neil burns and seethes on “Jungle Jim” (where she’s pushed back in the mix a bit on the Rusty version); and the rickety, noisy spiral at the end of “Gauge” sounds thrilling. “Exoskeleton,” which was only available in live and truncated form for a very long time, perfectly illustrates Rodan’s mastery of tension and dissonance, how a beautiful guitar phrase set with a spacious arrangement could turn on a dime into a dark, terrifying, exhilarating passage. The Hat Factory 93 feels the closest a studio recording could come to seeing Rodan live; O’Neil, Noble, and fellow guitarist/vocalist Jeff Mueller sometimes moved on stage together in parallel to their complex lines, criss-crossing and interweaving, playing as though they were not only exorcising personal demons but that the nightly ritual also felt really fucking good.
This release benefits the Louisville chapter of the always-worthy Girls Rock organization, and it will be both a welcome supplement for longtime heads to help remember what made Rodan so special and an invitation for those who missed them the first time around to have their first experience be visceral and urgent.