Album Review: Breaking Skin by Rikki Rakki
Tracking the rise of Rikki Rakki over the last few years has been… astonishing. Born a few months before the initial COVID lockdown, the band somehow made it through that turbulent year and came out the other end as a tight quartet with a lot of promise. Their 2022 debut EP, Quarantine Sessions, lived up to that potential with a captivating blend of introspective lyricism, dynamic instrumentation, and infectious charm which helped make sense of that mentally traumatic time. Since that memorable EP’s release though, Rikki Rakki has started to surpass their initial capacity, strengthening their musical bond and their individual skillset with each meeting, rehearsal, performance, and recording session. Slowly but surely, the band’s defining traits have begun to take on new lives within their music. The infectious charm has evolved into compelling poise, the dynamic instrumentation side-stepped into expansive production, and the introspective lyricism moved into gripping storytelling.
This artistic surge comes to a head on Breaking Skin, the band’s debut full-length album which contains nine rousing tracks that offer divergent yet tethered takes on the band’s self-described jangle stargazy rock. With each song comes a dozen threads to unravel musically and lyrically, each interwoven to create a stunning tapestry of genuine human expression, one that is unafraid of the rawness vulnerability can bring. In this way, the band truly lives up to that stargazing pedigree: each thread exists as its own star in a vast sky of creativity and together, they form a constellation of artistic brilliance. In its totality, its clarity and stature are stunning, but zoom in on a single flicker of that sky and you can still find yourself floored, lost in the musical emotion, whether heart-wrenching or soul-affirming.
A warm jangle opens up on the record with “Bad News,” a wispy assertion that moves the band away from the troubled times that defined their previous record. Of course, the proceedings still linger in the air, captured perfectly in the mix with spectral vocals that float through the song, sometimes innocently agreeable and other times defiantly enraged, with the latter taking hold as the song reaches its apex. Here, the band pushes forward into bigger and bolder sonic terrains where their musicality is front and center, radiating creative elegance and tender tenacity.
The album’s title track follows suit, an escalating composition that raises the stakes on the band’s sound with a racing tempo that has no limit to how fast it can sprint. The central theme of the record exposes itself as the hustle intensifies (“Breaking skin again, but then it is such fragile packaging\ To hold a soul, when no one knows what all goes on below the surface”), pointing to the constant struggle between tangible strength and inner force which modern society demands of us. Which will break first? The mind or the body? Despite the song’s title, it’s the spirit that eventually yields first in a thrilling finale as the lyrics resign themselves to rebellious silence in a rowdy sing-along (“I don’t want to talk about this anymore”).
“Steady Drip” rolls in next, therapeutic with its comforting tone and hearty jangle essence. More complex than the preceding tracks, the song ushers in the true start of expansive production on Breaking Skill, stepping into a world of sonic layers and textured emotions that move in sync with the lyrics. Regret and anxiety dominate this space, though the music never succumbs to its ennui, always pushing forward whether it be with a robust guitar line or a yearning vocal lift that solidifies the reverie of Erika Blatnik’s signature voice into something tangible and resonant. “Cryin’ In The Uber” doubles down on this sentiment, looking for a release to purge itself of the pent-up emotions that began to boil after the turbulent and transient scenes thus far. Reclamation is the central core here as the typical weakness becomes a strength, a rallying cry employed by the whole band in a memorable call-and-response line. The textural choices still dazzle here, opening the song with a portentous howl that helps color the song with nervous tension. More sly ideas present themselves as well, like a peculiar guitar slide tone that seems to relay the precarious nature of everything occurring on the record. But the cathartic nature of the song stays firm throughout, strengthening not only the singer but the listener for the emotional expedition that awaits on the next track.
If Breaking Skin itself is a thrilling musical tapestry, “Grey” is its most enigmatic and thought-provoking thread. The song dives deeper into the complexities of existence and identity, contending with the ambiguity of complacency that can sour our lives. The sharp production of Breaking Skin takes center stage here, helping to bolster the song as the record’s emotional anchor with a bevy of melodic flickers, sonic trills, and piercing timbre. That tone is instantly gripping, and beautifully agonizing with just a single strum at the onset. Emotionally crippling on one hand and longingly pensive on the other, it’s a song that can bolster any inner reflection, whether it be tinged with doubt or guided by faith. It’s a true sonic experience that casts a large shadow on the rest of the album while also revealing the band’s ability to tackle intricate philosophical themes that can’t fit into a standard rock tune.
“Grey over the city \ Casting us in iron, heavy with the season,” Blatnik sings as Matt Luger loops that haunting guitar strum in the background, which only builds space within the cavernous landscape as the song kicks in. Soon, the rhythm section of Andy Brown and Jay Kole enter, with a reticent shuffle that seems to take its time in pondering its surroundings. It’s not something worth fleeing from – instead, the band embraces it with open arms to help contend with the weighty anguish that paints the expanse. “We’re all living someone else’s past life,” the lyrics contend, pointing to the capricious nature of existence, errant glimmers that are always trying to be captured, grounded, and exploited. Breaking Skin‘s constellation of artistic brilliance shines brightest during the runtime of “Grey,” with the song itself pointing to the bright allure of the ephemeral heavens (“We are all just patterns in the night sky”). Magnificently poignant, “Grey” is a dynamic masterpiece of musical emotion that cements Breaking Skin as an essential listening experience, well before the last four tracks come in. And as great as “Grey” is, the band still leaves plenty left to explore in the back half of the album.
The moving awareness on “Grey” makes way for the seething clarity of “Glitch,” a song that enters with a chip on its shoulder that’s too large for even the talent on this record to grapple with or comprehend. “I am my own best enemy and my worst friend,” Blatnik croons through clenched teeth, no longer pulling punches when staring into the mirror. But instead of focusing on trivial details, the broader picture becomes clearer, realizing that the “glitch” in this instance is an inner demon and not a peripheral threat. The terror comes from within, the song envisions, which leads straight into the next bold track, “Pace.” Here, the band’s jangle is reinforced with a strong bass tone, allowing it to weather the storm brewing on the horizon (Oh I let it in against my will\ Oh I let it flow to feel the thrill\ It was so, right when I felt it in the wind\ In my bones, it always comes in with the wind“). Screams and roars bubble in the undercurrent of the mix, another crafty production choice that raises the stakes on an already bracing track and provides a clear path into the most ambitious moment on Breaking Skin: the eight-minute pastiche entitled “Scarecrow.”
Whereas “Grey” serves as the emotional anchor of Breaking Skin, “Scarecrow” reveals itself as the album’s farthest reach, stretching deep into melodic and lyrical symbolism in order to grapple with feelings of alienated protection. Esoteric in both lyrical and melodic design, the song unfolds as a sound collage that somehow moves in and out of completion, breathing life into an incorporeal being that can ward off unwelcome souls and creatures. The production is pushed to its limit here, yet is still able to comfortably capture all of the turbid moments, big and small, occurring within the mix, whether it be the skittish drum beat and the cautious bass line or the swirling specters menacing the titular guardian.
Resilience takes center stage in this musical allegory, doubling down on the faint implications scattered throughout the record, which provides an extra dimensional depth to the self-improvement journey the lyrics take on this record. Every bit of external and internal pain has been felt during the record, informing everything from breathy vocal lifts to stormy guitar parts. Meanwhile, the pastoral marionette has been affixed all along, still forward-facing through it all, even though its own limit will be met in the end. But when that tension gets released, it’s no longer the boisterous call-to-action from “Cryin’ In The Uber.” This time around, it is a bittersweet concession from a figure of stoic grace finally buckling from the pressure. In a way, it’s as heartbreaking as “Grey,” but the lengths the band go to build a moving scene within the song makes “Scarecrow” end up more as a chilling parable of limit and despair, one that’s far more grim than anything else on Breaking Skin.
Of course, Rikki Rakki doesn’t succumb to this gloom, opting to return to its upward gaze with an assertive yet comforting ode in the closing track, “Souls.” Opening with a doomy soundscape, the band sifts through the haze with their signature jangle sound in order to uncover the bright sky above, connecting itself to the natural wonder of life that sits right above our very heads. It’s here where self-love finally takes control of the record, with a simple phrase that’s impactful in any scenario, whether it be conscious hip-hop or savvy rock and roll: “And I love myself too.” Succinct and candid, it’s a welcome message in a record that contends with such critical observations, some necessary while others rash. The band is at its most infectious here, tempering their rowdy energy found on the title track and “Cryin’ In The Uber,” but still finding ways to create a boisterous sound that’s deserving of the passion and vigor.
Ending on “Souls,” the album itself feels like a journey through the depths of the human soul, as we shift through the complicated interwoven emotions of life to find out who we truly are. Breaking Skin is not just an album; it’s a profound exploration of the human experience, capturing the vivid lows as well as the sanguine highs. Lyrically and, more importantly, musically, the band’s ability to zero in on the fragility of connection, outwardly and inwardly, is simply sensational and will surely make this record live on well past the typical modern album cycle, with honest guidance that’s unafraid to travel deeper into despair and doubt in order to come out the other end wiser and stronger. Strip away all the nuance though and we’re still left with a thrilling record, mixed to utter perfection to capture the idiosyncratic charm of each bandmate. That charm can shine individually in the spotlight but it truly dazzles when working as a single entity: one band, eyes fixed on the sky, creating a musical tapestry befit of the beautiful cosmos.
Breaking Skin is out now on all streaming platforms. Make sure to stay up-to-date on upcoming concerts and other news from Rikki Rakki by following them on social media.
You can catch Rikki Rakki in concert next on Saturday, September 23rd alongside Drook, Strawberry Moon, and Hotspit for The Auricular‘s 5th Anniversary Celebration at Richmond Music Hall. You can purchase tickets now at this link and for more information, click this link or check out the show flyer below.