Mixed musical marriage
by Chris Berggren
Two things immediately stand out about Frontier Ruckus: the visually descriptive songwriting and the well-crafted instrumentation. Their singer-songwriter, Matthew Milia, writes articulate and intricate lyrics, like these from "Silverfishes:" "The silverfish they ditch their skins/A Saturday air raid begins/Pitching exoskeletons/Revolting in their molting/Don't you know I'm just like that/You can tell where I've been at/On every doormat I have sat/A relic so angelic." His imagery ranges from I-75 swallowing Christmas to walls that absorb old phone calls and even a comparison between water towers and drunken grandfathers.
Milia's delivers his songs with a demonstrative ferocity, and his wordplay works incredibly well with the quirkiness of the band's music--which is essentially a musical marriage of rock and folk, with a few odd instruments thrown into the mix for good measure.
While Frontier Ruckus features a traditional rock-oriented rhythm section of drums and bass, its front men, Milia and David Jones, gravitate toward a folksier sound. Milia plays acoustic guitar and harmonica and is assisted vocally by the banjo-plucking Jones. It's the band's fifth member, Zach Nichols, however, who really gives Frontier Ruckus its distinctive musical sound. Nichols is a jack-of-all-trades who plays an assortment of horns, melodicas, and saws--yes, the woodcutting tool. Nichols' horns add a jazzy, big-band element to the mix.
While few bands combine horns and banjo, it's the melodicas and saws that are really the attention grabbers. A melodica is a small plastic keyboard mouth organ that was made popular by reggae dub artist Augustus Pablo during the 1970s. Its sound falls somewhere between an actual keyboard and a kazoo. The saws add an even a stranger dynamic. When Nichols plays a saw tooth-side with a screwdriver, the saw acts as an additional rhythm instrument, but when he flips it over and plays the back with a bow, the saw sings with a ghostly reverb that wails above the playful music like a captivating dirge.
Good music is good music, but a live Frontier Ruckus show is worth the price of admission just to watch Nichols constantly switching instruments, sometimes as often as three or four times within a single song. The stage chemistry between Milia and Jones is a great source of entertainment as well. Often they will end up face to face, picking their instruments in a feverish duel.
Frontier Ruckus is at the Blind Pig to showcase its new CD, Deadmalls & Nightfalls, Saturday, July 17.
[Originally published in July, 2010.]