"Saint Dymphma", named after the patron saint of outsiders, is the band's follow-up to the acclaimed "God's Money". They've taken an even dancier, inclusive direction that continues to emphasize the ritualistic elements of their music while upping the transcendent aspects. The production is pristine cinematic headphone candy with 70's Eno intricacy and 00's Timbaland immediacy that will hold your attention while Gang Gang Dance continue to push things forward.
Review by Thom Jurek
Brooklyn's Gang Gang Dance is an excellent example of the vibrancy found in the loosely knit underground musical community in New York. Traditionally, the trio has relied heavily on electronics and sampling but has used them to very free-form ends. Influences from Brian Eno to Tetsuo Inoue, and Eastern-tinged world music could be heard in their sprawling textures and ambience-laden warp grooves. With Saint Dymphna (titled for the patron saint of outsiders), GGD has a made another left turn but this time by turning right, away form the hippie/patchouli saturated post-psychedelic tribal music and toward the more structured forms of electronic beat music like dubstep and grime. Gone are the long, sprawling ragged jams of their previous albums; they are replaced with 11 "songs," none of them more than five-and-a-half minutes. The beauty in this is immediately apparent: the listener encounters the influence of latter day digital dubbers like Mad Scientist andDub Syndicate in the sprawling sonics on the album opener "Bebey," but that quickly morphs itself into a more rugged, robotic formalism with traces of Kraftwerk, Deutsche Amerikanische Freundschaft, and even Der Plan. This opens the fader gates for the floppy electro-funk of "First Communion," the first track to feature Liz Bougatsos' vocals. Sharded streams of electric guitar wrap themselves around her voice, also adorned by a deep rumbling bass that's fuzzed to the max, and then the winding, melodic, pulsing, electronic synths and a drum kit. It's the beginning of an exotic journey into sound that gets to the aforementioned dancefloor styles in earnest, such as the slower, four to the floor loops on "Blue Nile," and the truly exotic mélange of samples, sprawling void atmospherics. and stretched beats on "Vacuum." MC Tinchy Stryder is a featured vocalist on "Princes," where grime and dubstep come together in a rhythm collision of startling proportions. There is room for the truly abstract here as well, such as on the ambient soundtrack-like "Inners Pace," and the more elastic rhythmic construction on "Afoot." But by the time the listener gets to "House Jam" -- which is nothing less than an utterly psychedelic blend of acid house and trance with a "straight" sung vocal by Bougatsos -- she'll wonder if she's really hearing GGD at all. "Desert Storm" winds all of these explorations in a tightly constructed mélange of dubstep, electro, breakbeat science, and freaky trip-hop. GGD claim that this record was influenced by the bombast of reggaeton blasting on N.Y. streets. Maybe so, but the brew they've conjured is their own. It's easily their most fully realized project to date and rather than simply a pastiche, they've managed to create something that's completely their own.
Gang Gang Dance
(Social Registry; 2008)
Combined Rating: 87%
God’s Money (2005) came out before I started writing here; we didn’t review it then, so in brief: amazing, unique album only marred perhaps by a kind of sonic smoothing of any edges that give you something to hold onto. I mention this because the biggest difference—what this lengthy 3-year gap since that album was released has meant for the band—is the way the band has remedied that problem. In other words, God’s Money was awesome too; Saint Dymphna, however, is more likely to pull Gang Gang Dance out of the out/niche set and into indie mainstream. But also it does that while maintaining Gang Gang Dance’s signature sound, and so works in a way that similar efforts like Magik Marker’s Boss (2007) failed.
But let’s talk about this album on it’s own terms. Because I think the album’s worth talking about not as a paring down of Gang Gang Dance’s sound (it isn’t) or some plot to make the band more accessible (again: not really) but rather as a fundamental refinement of the band’s particular brand of noise. This is a new sound that in many ways thrives off the old sound. And I make this distinction because the last couple of years have seen us becoming more complacent with the idea that art rock or Brooklyn whatever must inevitably tone down to some point where everybody can enjoy it. It’s not that it isn’t partially true so much as I’m getting dissatisfied with the inevitability of the narrative, as if we couldn’t tell the story any differently. Bands like the Animal Collective may have a Here Comes the Indian (2003) in their past, but their new stuff isn’t necessarily any less radical. Neither is pop music something that exists outside of experimentation.
Saint Dymphna isn’t Gang Gang Dance growing more accessible; Saint Dymphna is Gang Gang Dance offering us possibly the most complex and weird dance album of the year. And that’s something that should be celebrated, because the hardest thing about experimental music, to me, is making it relatable and translatable to all kinds of audience members. Which isn’t to say out fans and pop fans; it’s to say that that moment where a band finds a way to express the sometimes inexpressible with sincerity (and maybe humor) in a coherent and distinct aesthetic package is the most important thing music can do, to me. And to say it in a complicated way is even better, which is why I always bristle when the “accessible” tag starts to elide the fact that the band is still operating on the fringes of traditional music expression.
Especially because this album kind of does it backwards, or does it in opposite land. Clay “Erykah Badu is my Saviour” Purdom was already cautioning us that there’s no way Saint Dymphna had the kind of heft or gravitas to be album of the year, and…that lack to me is sort of the point of the album, though I’ll leave AOTY status to the number crunch in a few weeks time. What I mean is Gang Gang Dance used to tow the line between sincerity and hokeyness with the vague mysticism stuff that provided an aesthetic rubric for their music. And that’s always a risk when you’re in this kind of band, where you pick a kind of aesthetic niche or hook that gives some kind of weight to your noise. But just like the childhood animal fantasies of the Animal Collective no longer seem or sound particularly childlike, Gang Gang Dance has mutated those aesthetic impulses into something immediate, sincere, and often subversive. I’m not sure whether this was calculated or incidental, but the funneling of the Gang Gang Dance sound, erratic impulses and all, into straight-faced dance tracks directly confronts the typical divisions we make between serious and superficial music. This is gleeful construction, I mean, but they know they’ve nailed this album—this sound—because they know they took the time to nail it. Suddenly they’re winking at us from behind the curtain in a way that “Nicoman” from the RAWWAR EP only hinted at.
Because in one sense Clay is right—track to track, I wouldn’t say there’s any mentionable gravitas. There’s soft lush pop music pulled off with just enough humor to sell it on lead single “House Jam.” There’s the collapsing structures and Loveless-ness that inhabit the gorgeous “Vacuum” but there we also get enough bratty synth curls to give the whole thing a Saturday Morning cartoon battle feel. There’s the Tinchy Stryder rap cameo on “Princes” which works precisely because the band gets him to rap over their music, rather than trying too hard to make their music sound like hip-hop. There’s the constantly mutating swirls of “Desert Storm” punctuated by endless barrages of percussion. Most notably, though, is that each track is a lot of fun, spinning out this new aesthetic in very different ways, highlighting new strengths of the band every time you turn a corner. So “fun” is the operative word here.
But, what of the impact of the album total? There’s something downright overwhelming about this disc, whether it’s the unremitting playfulness or the way the band pulls together beauty and energy from the oddest of sounds or the way over top they sometimes launch into abstract political commentary. Saint Dymphna is the patron saint of the nervous and mentally ill, and beneath the joyful barrage the band creates you can hear that uncertainty and mood-shifting boiling, giving the record’s music a fluidity that hisses and pops and fills the air with vapors. In that sense this album seethes beneath the surface, pulling in and regurgitating a whole array of human impulses into a fantastic and fascinating take on contemporary and out music. But you can take it in both ways—frivolous or profound—and that’s even better. “Gravitas”? Saint Dymphna carries the weight of being great music while it’s also throwing that weight (with ferocious “heft”) in your face like an inciting snowball made of good karma. Then just when you think you’re getting into the funk of it, this album will turn around and kick you in the ass—with a smile on its face. So, everybody, please enjoy the most inspired and loving ass-kicking you’ll get all year.
27 October 2008
Gang Gang Dance:
[The Social Registry; 2008]
Gang Gang Dance's third album, God's Money, remains a revelation three years after its release. Pouring the muffled art-beats of 2004's Revival of the Shittest and the extended space-jams of 2004's Gang Gang Dance into structured songs, the record was starry and dreamy, yet also taut and focused. It made evident what was implicit from the start-- that these four hyperactive talents with underground pedigrees (see the Cranium, SSAB Songs, Angelblood, et. al.) could funnel their ideas into melodic pop without diluting them.
It also suggested that Gang Gang Dance might become an all-out pop band. But three EPs since God's Money have defied such expectations. Though gems like "Nicoman" did surface, Hillulah, Retina Riddim, and RAWWAR were mostly mysterious experiments akin to the band's earlier releases. Not that any of them were anything less than good-- but none were the pop epiphany the band on God's Money seemed poised for.
It turns out they had been working on that all along, and with Saint Dymphna their patience pays off. So clear and shiny it makes God's Money seem murky by comparison, this is predominantly a relative dance-pop album. But it still sounds completely like Gang Gang Dance, preserving their core of new-wave synths, tribal beats, otherworldly singing, and Residents-style loops. The biggest difference this time around is a lack of cavernous atmospheres. Here every sound and beat is laid bare, with no heavy reverb blanketing the songs like fog. The newfound clarity produces neither thinness nor tedium, but simply a direct, unadulterated power.
That power is clear immediately, when opening instrumental "Bebey" melts into the rhapsodic "First Communion". Here Lizzi Bougatsos' dreamy poetry ("Prisms have kissed my lids/ Sea salt has rubbed on my hips") and the band's coiled rhythms (particularly the beat-and-synth workouts of band MVP Brian DeGraw) hit on a momentum that could easily be the album's climax. But so many peaks pop up along Saint Dymphna's continuous stream that it's tough to catalogue them all.
Two moments in particular show that the more Gang Gang Dance change, the more they stay the same. After a lengthy synth opening, "Princes" becomes an actual hip-hop song featuring a rap from Tinchy Stryder. Sure, it's slightly jarring to hear his pulsing cadence paired with Bougatsos' ethereal howls, but the band's familiar elements-- especially Josh Diamond's wiry guitar line-- fit snugly around him. Even more surprising is "House Jam", a gleeful rip-off of Madonna circa "Holiday". But put the track on repeat and you might be more surprised that you never realized how well Gang Gang Dance's sound could work as 80s disco-pop.
Saint Dymphna ends with "Dust", a beatific instrumental that carries the band away like a magic carpet. Often when a group with avant-garde leanings flies close to the pop sun, the results can sound forced or off-key. But since accessible melodies have always bubbled beneath their music's surface, Gang Gang Dance's evolution sounds supremely logical. And anyone who thought that the cloudy sound of previous albums was a smokescreen should think again-- it turns out the band behind that curtain really is made up of wizards.
- Marc Masters, October 20, 2008