My first encounter with Portland, Oregon-based electro act Dead When I Found Her, alias founder/frontman Michael Holloway (joined onstage by John C. Worsley), was through an industrial music sampler; that discovery led me to their wildly diverse catalog of cover songs, riffing on radio standards by Depeche Mode, Prince, The Smiths and Phil Collins as well as legendary electronic acts Skinny Puppy and Nine Inch Nails (most of these covers appear on the band's well-stocked Soundcloud page). In one of those moments of black magic that happen a lot in the horror business, I recently got a heads-up from the founder of their label, ArtOfFact Records, who as it turns out is a FEARnet fan. One thing led to another, and soon the band's latest creation fell into my clutches. While Holloway's got dynamo skills twisting up vintage pop into his own retro-futuristic horror machine, he's also proven himself as an original beat wizard in his own right; he not only draws from the same well as classic Skinny Puppy (the track “Better Days” is practically a beat-by-beat tribute to “Shore Lined Poison” from SP's album Too Dark Park) and other '80s-era electro club acts, but also taps into the same dark vein of horror and sci-fi cinema that served many of those artists so well and endeared them to their fellow horror movie fans.
Rag Doll Blues continues in very much the same mode as the band's well-received debut album Harm's Way, but as demonstrated by the haunting piano pattern that weaves through the opening cut "No More Nightmares,” there's a more subtle undercurrent to the harsh beats, thundering synth bass lines and movie soundbites – a colder, more ghostly tone that seeps through the hardest club beats. Instead of stealing the rhythmic thunder, that air of mystery actually enhances the tracks' dark energy while keeping the hooks clean and pure, all the while bringing a sense of urgency – especially on powerful cuts like “Panic Matters.” The track "New Age of Reason,” informally the album's first single, lies right down the middle of the album's dynamics, bringing a lot of Holloway's strongest bass and beat skills to the game... maybe it's not the most daring work among these dozen tracks, but it's hooky and intense, with a harsh, burnt vocal lead that sounds genuinely tormented without resorting to forced goth melodrama.
It's probably no accident that the chilled tone which permeates so much of Rag Doll Blues is concentrated heavily in the metallic-sounding titles “Scissors" and “Stainless,” both of which bring melancholy melody lines that create a solid counterpoint to the scary atmospherics and slicing synths. The latter, an album-closing instrumental coda, expands the scope with soaring keyboard pads and rapid-fire movie samples for a mammoth nine minutes, but it's compelling enough that it never wears out its welcome. The light lullaby instrumental “Doll Pieces,” while just as spooky, has a warmer tone and a trance-like feel, and the excellent track “Rain Machine” brings some of that same warmth to its core melody, carried by multi-layered chorus vocals and making it one of the most memorable songs on the record.
While it doesn't break much new ground, Rag Doll Blues reinforces all of this band's musical strengths, and does manage to tweak the retro-industrial formula enough to bring a spark of life to a time-tested genre, proving that it can climb out of Skinny Puppy's giant bootprints far enough to become more than just a playground for '80s electro nostalgia. Especially with the right artist at the helm... and I'd say Holloway is one of a rare few up-and-comers with the skills to pull it off.