The unassuming men of Ral Partha Vogelbacher are a lot like those nondescript, quietly simmering step sitters of high school — their noses buried in books of arcane geography, color theory, and Hapsburg history, mentally dancing along a thin pink and green line between fact and fantasy while their butts are parked in concrete, institutional reality. Imagine Ral Partha as a country and what its five-year plan might be. They might come up with harebrained projects like sending a million monkeys to Mars, or scoring a gig as the house band for The Colbert Report.
But what else would you expect when it comes to a band named after a Dungeons and Dragons figurine manufacturer — and chief instigator Chad Bidwell's eighth-grade friend-nemesis, a Pierre Vogelbacher who later got his, when his nose was sliced off by falling dishes?
Folded into a chair across from fellow songwriter, guitarist, and suitcase manipulator David Kesler and drummer Jason Gonzales, Bidwell looks like the kind of guy you might pass on the street and never think twice about, despite his soft, lingering aura of amiableness. Similarly, his Dolores Park apartment sports few distinguishing stylistic flourishes — it's more like a serviceable space to sleep in. And judging from his bandmates' admiring comments — "This band is basically about steering around an idiot savant, waiting for his next good idea, and in between trying to weather the lows," says Kesler — and the songs on 2003's Kite vs. Obelisk (Megalon) and his latest, third album, Shrill Falcons (Monotreme), Bidwell obviously spends a lot of quality time in his imagination, rather than on Dolores Street. Shrill Falcons glides away from the folkier lo-fi of Kites vs. Obelisk and ventures into a more expansive musical habitat of distortion, feedback, minimalist pop, and drone that cribs from Wire, Pere Ubu, Neu, and Slint without aping by the numbers. Toiling at Kesler's "Frozen Skeletor Ice Castle Studio" in Oakland, the trio worked in the rich, gurgling, and bleating textures for which Kesler and Gonzales's Thee More Shallows and contributing friend Odd Nosdam of Anticon are known. "We all collectively have a desire to make music that's more aggressive," Kesler explains.
Composing most of the album's tunes while traveling in China and casting aside his onetime writing preoccupation with old girlfriends, Bidwell lyrically burrowed into family, loss, and travel.
The album was first titled Scandinavian Preppy, to go with the initially bright sound and the pink and green flag that adorns Falcon's cover, but, Orlando, Fla., native Bidwell says, "I think it actually sounds more swampy and murky, like Florida. 'Garden Assault' is about growing up in Orlando, next to this park and this lake. Me and my friends would swim in the lake and sneak into the park and go into the fountain and steal quarters and go play video games."
The death of Bidwell's father six years ago surfaces on songs like "Party after the Wake." In it, the patriarch roams his own funeral, until the family has him lie down, placing coins on his eyes. "It talks about seeing him at the viewing, his face all distorted, and I'm kind of probing his skin," says Bidwell with a bemused expression on his rubbery features, offering what might seem to be a painful life story with the puzzled distance of a perpetual observer.