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Ratbelly vs. Gorgotron * * * (3 stars)

Note: This review originally appeared in the March 28, 2002 edition of the Pulp

Ritual Space Travel Agency's music sounds heavy, but never bombastic. The opening chord on their second album might pin you to the wall. But once they've landed a blow to the gut, they follow up with a verbal hit to the cerebrum. In other words, there's more to their sound than simply a hard bottom. The distinction between heavy and heavy-handed comes in the way the local band termpers a thunderous rhythm section and metallic guitar leads with sharp saxophone lines, jazzy melodies and lyrics full of thoughtful social commentary. In person, their ferocious attack and high volume is enough to compel the baseball-cap-wearing fans of grunge-metal to throw their fists in the air. But the subtleties that might be missed at a live performance come through loud and clear on the band's second CD. Bassist Jesse Prentiss takes aim at the standard hot topics - religion, world leaders, capitalism - avoiding simplistic, good-vs-bad platforms in favor of incisive tomes.

"Mud Pit" offers one of the best examples. He envisions a world where art and small profits are forsaken for the money-making world of wrestling and its superficial rewards: "We're not willing to starve for this/ we're going to dummy it up and get paid/ there's no point in self-expression/ without the prospect of getting laid." It wouldn't leave much of a dent if it didn't reflect the shaft that artists in this country receive. The album's sequencing never sticks with one mood too long, throwing the jazzy swing of "All Alone" between two heavier numbers. In the case of "Puna Co.," a jazz break comes in the middle of the song. Two instrumentals show the band working with complex, shifting time signatures, falling somewhere between the art rock of King Crimson and fusion of the Mahavishnu Orchestra.

Alto saxophonist Jamie gives the music an edge, by supporting the melodic line with a rugged tone similar to John Zorn or Tim Berne. A few tracks get a little too rough. "Schizo Scherzo" lives up to its name, and lacks focus. "Fractured" pile drives the sound just a little too much. But ultimately, Ratbelly vs Gorgotron proves that brains and brawn - in the musical sense - aren't musically exclusive.

(CD reviewed by Mike Shanley)