Formed almost two years ago by David Arbury and Carleton Ingram, Roto was conceived as a celebration of drummers. The concept behind the group was to play as a live band with the two static members, then change drummers at every show. The group began working with many different area drummers on tracks and what remains are 17 tracks with a good bit of variety, but something that still has a surprising amount of cohesion. The two main members wrote the melodies to the tracks and encouraged the drummers to freestyle things a bit while taking a break from their respective bands (or in the case of several contributors, bands).
Nearly all of the musicians on the release are from the Washington, DC area, and that influence is heard throughout. While the drummers all bring their own parts to the songs, there is also a pretty fair amount of political speak on the album and the album starts out that way with "Trickster." With jangling guitars and percussion that is surprisingly tame, the lyrics touch on the mistreatment of American Indians but sound just slightly strange coming from a off-key white punk rock guy. Fortunately, the album picks up amazingly on the second track "Glass," moving in a completely different direction. This time, the main vocalist for the track sounds somewhat like Ian Curtis with a slight baritone while the harmony part of the vocal breaks in and offsets the rumbling track nicely.
Perhaps surprisingly enough, some of the tracks that work the best on the album are ones in which a standard drum kit is set aside for electronic ones. The fourth track "Wrecking Ball" hums right along with a fairly subtle drum machine, but bursts into a blast of squiggled-out electronics during the chorus before dropping into almost a drum and bass rhythm for the last part of the track. That same approach is worked on the second version of "The Show" (which is easily more exciting than the first version of the track on the release) in which the electronic percussion stutter-steps through the track and perfectly offsets the jagged guitar parts of the song. It's that kind of experimentation (which sort of reminds me of the amazing integration of electronics that Refused used so well on their The Shape Of Punk To Come album) that breaks the group out of simply "interesting side project" status.
Of course, if you like the sound of different releases by contributing members (like Charles Jamison of Land Speed Record, Justin Moyer of Edie Sedgewick, and John Davis and Harris Klahr from Q And Not U), you'll probably find something to enjoy here. Although it doesn't particularly stand out from any other releases in the same genre, Roto is comprised of a batch of very good musicians and there is still some very interesting instrumentation to be heard (although the percussion didn't stand out as much as I originally thought it would given the premise). Perhaps they'll come around a second time and completely throw caution to the wind.