Interstellar electric mandolin? Check. Chromium-plated rocket dance shoes? Check. Tactical helmet with nitrogen conversion intake? Check. Armed with all the accouterments necessary for serious space travel, the Disposable Rocket Band set their gamma rays on the audience at Art on Lark.
Intrepid space explorer Mat Kane strides out of the airlock sporting a khaki jumpsuit and a pilot’s helmet. The growling power chords of “Spliffs of Dover,” a song from the band’s new album Apocalyptic Propulsion Unit, rips out of the PA. With strumming hand raised in expectation, Kane’s paper-hospital-slippered foot triggers the tinny pop of the drum machine, engaging his sidekick Razaksat—earth name Rachelle Stallman-Smith.
Clad in a red Mortal Kombat tunic (think Ermac, the red ninja) and metallic face mask, Razaksat makes for the crowd with a dance that is part running man, part robot and part gypsy two-step. With Kane hammering out the melody on his electric mandolin, Razaksat, a bona fide dance machine, moves through the crowd, challenging each person to dance without saying a word, only a gaze that seems to say, “I am programmed for dancing. What are you programmed to do?” She doesn’t linger long, rapidly spiriting from one pocket of the crowd to next, the gold chains around her waist jingling with the shake of her hips. There she is in your peripheral vision, staring at something just beyond your eyes. By the time you turn to look, she has already evaporated.
While Razaksat’s main job as interlocutor keeps her in the audience for the majority of the show, Kane does his share of moving the crowd as well, annihilating the space between stage and audience by hopping off the risers and shredding arpeggios in front of wide-eyed infants and passersby alike. Much of Kane’s performance depends on the precise execution of intricate finger Olympics, but during the ominous breakdowns on songs like “The Singularity,” he spins from one foot to the other in an orbital dance around Razaksat. Eschewing choreography for spontaneous invention, the Disposable Rocket Band’s performance consists of one tenet: Improvise. Or as they say, “Wing it,” like Millennium Falcon.
Kane says he is “just a regular guy by day,” but unlike countless superheroes, his Battlestar Galactica helmet and his nine-to-five face meet peacefully in the center. This polite, unassuming young man may be in front of you in line at the grocery store, enjoying a draft beer a few stools down, or mowing his lawn across the street at this very moment, and you’d never guess that when night falls and the cosmos call to waylaid space explorers stranded on Earth with no extra cash for rocket fuel (shit’s expensive these days), Kane dons his rocket helmet and retires to his basement or garage to capture the sound of solar winds scraping across Mercury’s craggy surface.
As for Stallman-Smith, her onstage persona and real life are inseparable. She’s a dance therapist by trade, and her working experience supports the silver mask she dons as Razaksat. While gazing up in the air, scanning the sky for the headlights of a spaceship, she tries to get everybody involved. “I try to touch them or at least make eye contact,” she says. Her job espousing the holistic benefits of dance helps counter the challenge that all performers encounter when they bring their act to the stage: the dude in the back with his arms folded tight and the lady lazily looking at her iPhone. By approaching the wallflowers and inviting them to participate with a tap on the shoulder or a spooky gaze, Razaksat is able to elicit at least a nervous laugh, breaking the personal bubble we use to shield ourselves from the streets.
Brought together by mutual friend and artist Chip Fasciana, Stallman-Smith and Kane first arranged to meet at a local dance studio, but when they found the door locked, Kane asked if Stallmann-Smith would rather set up in his garage. What could have been an awkward moment between new acquaintances resulted in instant chemistry. All they knew of each other was that one knew how to dance and the other had a beat. “Some people just get it,” says Kane. “Rachelle and I are very much on the same sound wavelength.” When asked, the two were unsure of the phase the moon assumed that day and could not quite recall whether an eclipse was in the offing, but it is safe to say that the moon and stars had been planning this encounter for some time.
The cover of Apocalyptic Propulsion Unit, the Disposable Rocket Band’s debut, depicts a neon flying saucer quitting a desolated landscape littered with abandoned churches and oilrigs for a galaxy far, far away—the handiwork of local photographer Sébastien Barré and multimedia artist Chris Harvey. The collaboration provides a fitting frame through which to view the Disposable Rocket Band: equal parts performance art, concept-driven musicianship and speculative fiction.
Musically, the record brings to mind Mark Mothersbaugh’s Life Aquatic film score and the guitar virtuosity of Eric Johnson. An image of Kane in his jumpsuit, leaning back, fingers of fury a-blazing, hovers over the arrangements. With its drum machines, heavily distorted guitars and synthesizer stutters, it would be easy to categorize the Disposable Rocket Band as reminiscent of video-game music, but Kane’s compositional prowess, the band’s live presentation, and the excellent mix and production by Terry McClain lift it above background music into the realm of genre-based performance art.
Kane, working with the limitless palette of keyboard timbres in his hard drive, demonstrates his tremendous range as a composer on songs like “The Singularity.” The eight-minute epic, which closes the album, begins with a rapid-fire metal riff and transitions into a house-inspired take on something Dan Deacon might write. In these moments, one can imagine Stallman-Smith displaying a space-ninja kata just before the hiss and pop of drums shuffle to the fore.
Song titles like “Heat-Seeking Fetus” raise an ironic eyebrow and tease out the sense of play that is at work in this collection of songs. Mammoth blasts of distortion rattle the hull of the ship and subside, making way for pinging major arpeggios from Kane’s mandolin, and finally lilt the babe into its cradle on a bed of airy synthesizers that could just as easily ring out of a chrome baby mobile as the loudspeakers of a Russian space station. “Dispossessed Fabricants,” the best example of Kane and McClain’s production on the album, showcases Kane’s impeccable ear for melody. On a bed of shifting chords and salsa-infused drums, he floats an airy melody over the arrangement until the song makes a U-turn on a single ecstatic note into a double-time MIDI keyboard coda. The two distinct halves of the song, when taken separately, bring to mind the doppelgangers of Sam Rockwell’s dual role in Moon—one heavy and brash, the other more stately and focused but born of the same DNA. The ease with which Kane and McClain balance these two distinct moods is representative of the perspicacity that pervades the Disposable Rocket Band’s debut, right down to the NASA-inspired fonts on the cover.
Recorded over the course of six months, Apocalyptic Propulsion Unit is a work that displays the group’s tested patience and tremendous promise. “We’re always getting caught up in side adventures,” says Kane. “I get a little distracted by some planet that I have to visit for a weekend or two,” adds Stallman-Smith. But with larger reconnaissance missions to inner systems such as Art on Lark, we need not scan the stratosphere with our night vision goggles for Razaksat and Captain Kane. The mothership has landed. In the immortal words of one of Earth’s most noble space cadets, George Clinton, “Put a glide in your stride, a dip in your hip, and come on up to the Mothership.”