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Music Preview: Pittsburgh jazz-metal band launches its own weird attack

Friday, January 25, 2002

By Ed Masley Post-Gazette Pop Music Critic

On the bone-crushing, freewheeling, high-concept "Gorgotron vs. Ratbelly," Ritual Space Travel Agency rages against the machine in a musical universe where System of a Down meets John Zorn's Naked City to talk about Zappa and Primus and smashing the state and how the United States likes to snuff its victims -- as Bill Maher so impulsively noted -- from a distance.

Ritual Space Travel Agency (clockwise from bottom left): Andrew Fitz, Jamie, Jesse Prentiss, Kevin Deeter and Troy Cramer.

It's practically metal. And practically jazz. And practically something Tom Waits would have done if he'd been born a couple of decades later. With a voice that wasn't half so deep.

It's certainly rock -- in that it rocks, with personality and attitude and energy and words that get all in your face about how dumb the world is but in a way that's never preachy and/or obvious.

It's also weird as hell. And powerful. And angry. And intelligent. A soundtrack to an animated monster film they haven't finished yet that, at the same time, finds them launching an attack on U.S. foreign policy as it relates to the "unpleasant comedy of mass murder," it is the record Spin thought System of a Down had made.

On "All Alone," lead singer Jesse Prentiss rocks the U.S. War Against the Have-Nots with "As I stepped into the street, I was hit/I was hit by an ambulance/It picked me up on the way back from dealing with someone more important."

 
 
Ritual Space
Travel Agency

With: Coinmonster, Crisis Car

Where: Rosebud, Strip.

When: Tonight at 9.

   
 

On "Death to the Bloodstained Giant (A Play)," he could be addressing the recently stolen election when he sings, "We're in the country/We took a poll/You want us here by a quiet margin/A little politics, a little genocide, the right face to pump up our numbers/As long as you believe us, we'll never lose control/We'll never lose control/We'll never lose control."

On "Mengele," he notes the difference between a Joseph Mengele and what we'd consider a war hero here in the home of the brave -- "A less intimate Angel of Death," as he calls it.

"We want to kill them from a distance," Prentiss sings. "We want to kill them like we're pushing pins in a map/We want to kill them like statistics/We'll work out the logistics. ...We want to keep our hands spotless/We want to keep this all anonymous. ... This is strictly business, baby."

As you may have guessed, he's not the biggest fan of America's newfound sense of national identity.

"Generalizing your enemies, I think, is the big reason why we lost so many people in New York City," Prentiss says. "Because America was seen as the enemy. And so, all American citizens became enemies when really the people that had caused all the problems and made these other countries so angry would be just our government. It's not that they should have had anything against regular people working in a building."

As one of the regular people, Prentiss has certainly distanced himself from the government here.

In discussing the inspiration for "Mengele," Prentiss says, "The engine of our foreign policy since World War II was all about 'Can we get the people who make the rockets? Can we get the people who make those kind of explosives? We've got our atomic missile but how do we get it to other places without even sacrificing our own planes to get there?' And the defense industry that built up around manufacturing these incredibly sophisticated weapons ... once you've built that great big structure, it's like OK, now we have atomic weapons and some rockets. The only thing to do is build more of them because your opponents also have them. And why people like Joseph Mengele were not particularly prized is because they were just garden-variety psychotics. They didn't have as great a world view of their psychosis."

As political as Prentiss comes across at times, it's not all politics.

He's "still crazy," he says, "about trying to just make cool music."

And the music here is not just cool but also heavier than on Ritual Space Travel Agency's first release. It's a natural fit for the lyrics.

As Prentiss explains, "I feel like if you're making angry music, it should be about something worth getting really angry about. Getting angry about getting dissed by somebody, like 'You step up at me and I'll beat you down,' that kind of stuff that you keep hearing from the rap-rock kind of bands, that's not something that should get you that worked up. But in Rage Against the Machine's case, Leonard Peltier or the Mexican indigenous people, they're talking about things that are worth rage."

The goal of that musical rage, he says, is partly just to vent and partly to motivate people to think about the truth behind the waving flags.

And once they know the truth, he says, "then, we can move on to how to solve the problem. But when people won't even acknowledge that there's a serious problem with the way the American government has conducted itself around the world in the last century, then, what are you gonna do? As long as everybody still thinks that this is the land of the free and the home of the brave and that we promote democracy around the world, you might as well be talking to your shoes."

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