A number of things conspire to make Urge Overkill’s new album Exit the Dragon the perverse, irritating, compelling, and scabrous mess that it is. One is the decline of National Kato, one of the band’s two key songwriting forces. Where his decrepit but oddly irresistible ideas of rock songcraft ignited tracks like “Sister Havana” and “Positive Bleeding,” two standout moments from 1993’s Saturation, his riffs now seem flaccid, the melodies uninsistent, the lyrics sometimes forced or worse (“It’s just like Sly said, ‘There’s a riot goin’ on'”–not to mention an entire song built around a Monopoly metaphor). At the same time, Eddie “King” Roeser has come through with his most powerful songs and most venturesome vocals yet. His beautiful, scarred “Tin Foil” hides a classic bit of 60s-style rock tunesmithing (that “Hey Jenny!” chorus) inside a dramatic and lugubrious guitar workout, and “The Breaks” insists that the band’s powerful way with the head-snapping hook hasn’t disappeared. All that said, the third force working on the band is a palpable feeling of erosion–moral, physical, personal, professional–that seeps into nearly every track on the record. Whether this has to do with the rumors of drug use that surround (and are sometimes copped to by) the band, internal dissension, or merely career pressures isn’t clear; but the utterly abject way the band drops hint after hint–“This is nowhere / This is no place I’d like to be”; “I’m asleep when I’m awake”; “Hey, hey, I’m dead on arrival”; “Beware the overdose”–becomes, after a while, convincing in a thoroughgoing and depressing way. Live, the band has made a history of doing things the hard way: what was supposed to be a celebratory record release party for Saturation at Metro two years ago, for example, was a muddy debacle. If the band members take the time to get the sound right at the cavernous Riv, however, the power and grandeur they’re capable of might come through. The Geraldine Fibbers open. Friday, 7 PM, Riviera Theatre, 4746 N. Racine; 275-6800 or 559-1212.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Lisa Spindler.