Music in Bristol: Frontier Rucku at Start the Bus, Saturday 16th March
Frontier Ruckus have toured Europe three times, though it's unlikely you've ever heard of them. Their most recent album, their third, Eternity of Dimming – a 20-track double album with a lyric count in excess of 5,500 words – topped Bandcamp's bestseller chart with pre-orders alone, a full month before it was even released. That is to say Ruckus' profile in their native USA is significantly stronger than here, with NPR, Daytrotter, Under the Radar and Paste all on the bandwagon; some since their debut The Orion Songbook back in 2008.
The band was formed in 2003 (their first official release was their I Am the Water You Are Pumping EP in 2006) by Matthew Milia and David Jones, who played a mixture of Milia's early compositions and traditional bluegrass songs he had collected.
They expanded to a six-piece whilst one attended Michigan State (where he studied poetry under The Motorcycle Betrayal Poems author Diane Wakoski) and the other, the University of Michigan. With the expansion came the addition of harmonies, trumpet, musical saw, melodica and drums to the duo's guitar and banjo.
Shortly after their first EP, they began to gain momentum in their home state, with the Metro Times considering them "already one of the very best sounds to come out of Michigan this entire decade" and Real Detroit Weekly saying "I'm not sure If I can recall a voice as untreated and honest as Milia's... ever. His is a voice whose timbre carries as much meaning as the words that come through it."
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By 2010, the band were playing Bonnaroo Festival (for which Rolling Stone listed them as an "essential set"), a month-long European tour and releasing their second record, Deadmalls & Nightfalls. More significant perhaps were the shout-outs from the likes of Ryan Adams, who tweeted "Loving the new Frontier Ruckus! Great band... this is what I want to get back to. Those tunes go forever."
Adams wouldn't be the worst point of reference for their new album, though closer is Conor Oberst's recent work – the heartbreaking storytelling of songs like Cape Canaveral ("I watched your face age backwards, changing shape in my memory / You told me victory's sweet, even deep in the cheap seats").
A less obvious comparison are the Athens, Georgia-based Nana Grizol, featuring members of Neutral Milk Hotel and Elf Power, whose Ruth album of 2009 is an underrated gem full of the kind of sweeping existential statements that Oberst has always excelled at ("And nothing ever does begin like nothing ever ends / Ask every atom in your body and they're sure to tell you, 'Friend, I'm old as time, and older still, and you are made of everything you love, you feel, or kill'"). Milia joins them in knowing that often the most specific lines are felt the most universally: "Does your Dad fall asleep with the remote in his hand? Does a digital beep promote gentle reprimand?"
Their press release is quick to authenticate them with stories of the banjo received at 11 years old, the dented saxophone from junior high, the organ saved from a church going out of business, the guitar from a Seventies weed deal... admittedly, it's cloying before you press play, though make it through Dimming's impassioned 90 minutes just once and you'll be hankering for any glimmers of its back story.