There’s still time to nominate local icons for Best of D.C.
The product of at least three studios and nearly three years of labor, Gang Gang Dance’s third record has all of the earmarks of an album-as-album masterpiece: rich and elaborate production, bold attempts at musical miscegenation, and only one obvious candidate for a single. It’s a 44-minute, 11-song psychedelic mélange of sub-bass, dubbed-out percussion, and retro synthesizers so enormously garish that they wind up sounding current again. In short, it’s an album of such bizarre ambition that even Björk will have to remove her headdress of human hair, have a long look at the mirror, and worry about what to do next.
The album claims three honest-to-goodness songs with verses and choruses (four if you count Tinchy Stryder’s guest toasting on “Princes”), but like Gang Gang Dance’s previous discs, Saint Dymphna isn’t exactly easy listening. The bulk of the record is composed of trippy interludes and highly repetitive jamming that will have impatient (i.e., sober) listeners spinning the time dot across the faces of their iPods searching for a hook, a tune, anything to keep them from feeling unmoored in an ocean of effects-laden ear pudding.
But at least there aren’t any acoustic guitars. In 2005 Gang Gang Dance sounded positively revolutionary at a moment when lots of American bands were fleeing postpunk for the hand-wringing heartland of faux Americana. The group defiantly located a middle ground—too melodic for the hardcore weirdos, too self-indulgent to appear in a Volkswagen commercial. It took them a while to get there: Gang Gang Dance’s roots go back to the early ’90s, when keyboardist Brian Degraw and drummer Tim Dewit were living in D.C. and playing in a spaz-punk band called the Cranium. By the end of the decade that group had disbanded and the two wound up in New York, where they informally experimented and improvised with vocalist-percussionist Lizzie Bougastos and guitarist Josh Diamond. By 2003 this group had congealed into Gang Gang Dance, which released two albums of heavily chaotic and abstract music cobbled together from various recording sessions and lo-fi practice tapes.
Gradually, the band shifted toward structured, if unorthodox, songwriting: By cramming together sounds as diverse and incompatible as IDM, Ethiopian pop, and Morrissey-style melodies, Gang Gang Dance wound up with compositions that were arguably even weirder than their free-form noodling. The resulting record, 2005’s God’s Money, was, to pick the best available word, psychedelic. But it wasn’t your stoner uncle’s drug-music. Gang Gang Dance had landed on a grimy Third World-radio vibe that was deeply trippy without pandering to the ’60s. Prestigious gigs at the 2008 Whitney Biennial and Vincent Gallo–curated All Tomorrow’s Parties festival followed.
And then, nothing. Gang Gang Dance followed up God’s Money with 2007’s Retina Riddim, a watch-and-forget DVD of tour and rehearsal footage edited into an seizure-inducing collage. The prolonged gestation period wasn’t a total surprise—God’s Money took a full year to complete. But the process was starting to seem extended even for a band as deliberative about its experiments as this one. In June 2007 Degraw told me the band had made four attempts at recording but had, for the most part, scrapped everything. “We’re having sound issues,” Degraw said. “Nobody can really get the sound that’s in between live and studio.” He couldn’t exactly say what that sound was, though. “Things are definitely getting a little more dancey,” he said. “To me we’re making much more accessible music, but to other people it’s probably still pretty fucked up.”
On the evidence, Degraw has fulfilled his mission: Saint Dymphna is simultaneously poppier and weirder than anything the band has done. On the record’s finest, most considered moments—the actual songs—it’s possible to get a better idea of what Degraw and his band mates were willing to haul themselves through all of those studios to achieve. After a nearly five-minute electro-instrumental intro (“Bebey”), the disc finally lifts off with “First Communion”: Wobbling booty-bass buoys Tim Dewit’s skittering dance beat while Diamond riffs hard on a fuzzy, Afro-tinged guitar line. Bougastos’ vocals—mainly spiritual hoo-hah like “Prisms have spit on my lips/Moon lasered light on me”—are tight, upfront and have a lispy, screamy intensity.
Similarly catchy is “House Jam,” which makes strange bedfellows of Timbaland and Kate Bush. It’s a perplexing pass at pop: The diva-ready melody and breathy vocal samples sound like they’ve been nabbed from a Hounds of Love B-side, while the song’s stuttering bass drum and Casio synths drag things in a sweatier direction. It’s a neat trick: The band successfully integrates hip-hop sounds without coming across as parody of it.
But then there’s all that other stuff. Played from start to finish, Saint Dymphna sounds like one continuous track, as if the band set up in the studio with three formal tunes, one hour, and a mind to jam. There’s a concerted effort, it seems, to manufacture the kind of ecstatic mid-performance moments where spaced-out noodling spontaneously coalesces into something unexpected and revelatory. More often than not, it works: Gang Gang Dance can swing from abstract interludes to full-on art-pop splendor. But considered individually, the tracks—more strands of connective tissue than compositions—don’t hold much interest. “Vacuum,” with its wheezing synths and elastic notes, functions well as a jammy bridge between “First Communion” and “Princes.” But on its own, the song is just a single five-minute repeated riff. Same goes for “Dust”, which closes the album with wishy-washy and forgettable global bongo-jamming that could sell rainsticks at the Discovery Store.
Saint Dymphna’s epic pretensions are difficult to ingest piecemeal. Unless you have the time to down 30-odd minutes of gradually escalating jams you’ll likely find yourself skipping to the good parts. In a single dose, though, the record is the full realization of Gang Gang Dance’s electro-primitive-foot-pedal-tribal aesthetic. All of the hip-hop-meets-dancehall-meets-dubstep ideas hinted at on the band’s earlier releases are brought to bear, and the results are thrilling. It’s an album screaming for its own laser-light show, even if there isn’t a planetarium in the land ambitious enough to give it one.