Rhythm Changes

"Belligerent Hairstyle": The well-coifed men of Wicketran

You say you're into drum 'n' bass? Sure you are. How about something with a nice 4/4 time signature and a predictable "thumpa-thumpa" rhythm, perhaps? Well, you're not going to find any of that in St. Paul's rhythmic duo Wicketran, I'm afraid. Meet its members: Justin Ohlander manhandles the bass for personal pleasure, and Jeremy Ward assaults his drum kit with the precision of a surgeon and the relentless fury of a professional boxer.

Following a slew of two-member rock outfits that emerged in the past decade--hailing back to the Olympia-spawned "love rock" bands like Heavens to Betsy and the Spinanes--another duo might be perceived as a lightweight novelty. But beware: A heavy rhythmic onslaught is Wicketran's trademark.

When Wicketran morphed into existence in late 1999, the duo were initially uncertain whether their sound would be full enough. But in their live performances, they create a spectacle of passionate intensity and energetic drama. Ohlander bends and sways as though trying to steady himself in the midst of a storm, wildly plucking away at his bass. Ward mercilessly flails at his drums. He appears to be endangering his own limbs, although he laughs at this notion. "I'm more likely to get carpal tunnel from my job, just typing all day, or playing video games," he explains during an interview at this writer's home.

Despite Wicketran's onstage intensity, their CD is a happy-go-lucky hodgepodge of fast-paced prog rock and free-jazz skronk with a sense of humor. Their first full-length album, Frills and Flashy Finery (released last year on Ohlander's own Snackbag Records), features such amusing song titles as "Belligerent Hairstyle" and "Conquering Mount Shoehorn."

"I personally like goofy song titles," offers Ohlander. "Music is just supposed to be fun--you make fun of everything." Adds the cynical Ward, "With instrumental music, no one's going to relate to it on an emotional level, [because] they've just got the music to go on."

More difficult is determining when a Wicketran piece is finished. "They're never finished!" Ohlander bursts out laughing. "I'm not a fan of repeating a lot of riffs over and over. I don't come up with many riffs that I like, so I have to use them very sparingly."

Citing an assemblage of riffs as the backbone of his songwriting, Ohlander quietly shrugs off the notion that Wicketran's music is complex. "Most of it is basic pop structure: You've got your hooks and your interludes. You just mentally come to a certain point where you know the riff has been used enough, and it works in a particular context within the song."

True to this description, muscular, distorted basslines prowl the album's eight tracks in the guise of severely damaged waltz melodies and frolicking goose-step cadences. Jackhammer rhythms erupt convulsively, challenging the listener to refrain from involuntary seizures.

An arrangement of sound like this would seem to defy pigeonholing. But Ward notes that the band has been compared to Ruins and Godhead Silo. When Wicketran is likened to the avant-garde trio Lightning Bolt, he admits, "I hadn't even heard of them until about two months ago."

Undaunted by the idea of living up to the work of their predecessors, the pair continue to gain new fans with their anthemic skronk. As Ohlander points out: "There's no reason to break up the band. There's only two people, so there's no one to team up with and fight."

"I could challenge you to a duel!" Ward counters. But, perhaps remembering that he should save his aggression for the drums, he backs down. "We'll just fight each other on our GameBoys."

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