This year in review is going to be a little different than my previous ones. As always there’s tons of discussion about whether or not 2015 was a good year for music, always a fun discussion, but for me the answer is unquestionably yes. New albums by a lot of my favorites, including Susumu Hirasawa, Echolyn, Rip Slyme, Magma, Glass Hammer, Dan Deacon, Flynt Flossy, Todd Rundgren, They Might be Giants (twice!), and Datarock (sort of), among other stuff I’m a fan of, like The Tangent, Dam-Funk, Steven Wilson, Sons of Kemet, Towa Tei, The Orb, Sufjan Stevens, The Black Dog, Beardfish, Battles, IZZ, and Squarepusher. Among several others I can’t remember right now. Now none of this is making the year-end lists, except of course the Sufjan album. Sadly I’m not really able to make a list myself, as there’s just been so much good stuff that I haven’t really been able to digest it all, not that I’ve been able to the last couple years either. I have no clue what my “album of the year” is going to be and probably won’t until we’re well into 2017. It’s just been that sort of year. So instead, I figured I’d put together some disparate thoughts on a few albums I’ve listened to this year and call it a day. Year end lists are kinda dumb anyway. So let’s get started:
“Sounds like a dying cat rolled through a meat grinder”, one review said. Dan Deacon certainly creates the sort of music that can be described this way, and if you’re not the least bit intrigued by that, chances are this simply isn’t for you. Spiderman of the Rings had a relentless giddiness that wore on some people, but by and large I think it was seen in a positive light. If you didn’t hate it outright, chances are you either loved it or it was going to get you eventually. Alas, it was not exactly a mainstay on the 2007 end-of-year charts. This was the year of In Rainbows, Neon Bible and Sound of Silver, and here you had an album that begins with a symphonic interpretation of Woody Woodpecker’s laugh. So it was doomed for the “honorable mention” column with a write-up like, “hoo boy, the manchild talking lizard, Wham City, whoa!” (and yet, they took Cross by Justice seriously, cuz y’know, Daft PUNK!) It was almost certainly one of the most fun, inventive, and unique albums that year, but what kind of critic was going to put that above freakin’ Radiohead? (Maybe someone who sees Mouth Silence and Turquoise Jeep as album of the year material?)
Spiderman had a lot of moments that were complex and melodically brilliant, if you were looking for them; as many reviews pointed out “you almost forget he’s got a master’s degree in composition”. And in a way, I think that was sort of the point, as Deacon clearly wanted to give the album a party atmosphere, which means it’s the kind of music you shouldn’t have to think too hard about. Bromst is every bit as intense and densely layered as Spiderman was, but this time he’s going big the hard way. He hired an ensemble for this one, which in Dan Deacon terms basically means a bunch of drummers and players of other percussive instruments, mostly things hit with mallets. I mean, there are xylophones galore on this one, maybe more than on any other album I can think of. That plus a few horns really make up the whole thing (there’s a guy credited with guitar, though I sure as hell don’t hear it), but there’s also Deacon himself, who let’s just say does not tone anything down. Not only is he layering his voice all over this thing (with varying levels of distortion), but his electronic pallete remains basically the same; that is, big, blocky synth waves and long, sustained high notes, often all at the same time. “Red F” begins with the loud noise of a Windows ’95 sound card crashing and…runs with it the entire song.
That’s the important thing about Bromst; fans of his prior work may have had some reservations here, that Deacon was maturing and getting a little less interesting, as so many in his shoes have done in the past. It’s never fun to see a goofball suddenly get serious, though in Deacon’s case you get the impression that he’s been serious about this all along. His music has always been about stretching the bounds of the human brain – not in the psych-era “expand your mind” sense, but rather by testing how much aural stimuli it can handle at once. That’s the main dig against this album – it’s incredibly noisy and elaborate. Overkill is Deacon’s default setting, and as a result you feel every one of the album’s 64 minutes. Even the interlude “Wet Wings”, which loops a vocal sample on top of itself into oblivion, quickly becomes overbearing (later on, he’d do “Call Me Maybe 147 Times Exponentially Layered”, which is…..wow). That’s the consequence of having no real jokey stuff – the closest we get is “Woof Woof”, this album’s “Snake Mistakes”, with a wickedly funky bass riff, cartoon sound effects, and a dog barking throughout the entire song (and of course, it’s one of the best tracks on the album).
I’m sure Deacon himself realized this, which may be why it seems he’s actively looked for ways to tone it down. I remember reading a comment Brian Eno made about Before and After Science, about how the album was about finding ways to progress in a song by removing things – at the time I don’t really know what that meant, but I think I get it now. In many pop songs there’s a “money shot” where everything drops out but the drums and the vocals, sort of the “clap and sing along” bit that always feels so damn powerful, even in songs I dislike. Deacon leaves plenty of those moments on this album; the chopped vocals on “Snookered”, the crazy, pounding drum solo on “Of the Mountains”, the gorgeous impossible piano bits that end “Run For Your Life”, or the surprisingly stripped Neu!-like rhythm on “Surprise Stefani”. These are the most bare moments on the album, and they’re some of my favorites, just because of how well earned they are. And that’s really a neat thing; while most artists build to a climax where everything comes together (especially in electronic music), Deacon instead hits the noisy parts early and allows the catharsis to come by scaling it all back. That’s important because it gives some sort of insight into just how complex all these interlocking bits and pieces are. There’s another cliché that Bromst turns on it’s head – it is one of those “enough ideas for an entire career” albums, but rather than using the Cardiacs or Mr. Bungle method of switching things up every twenty seconds, it just plays a bunch of them on top of each other.
The effect of all this is that it’s difficult to know where to focus your attention. That’s something I really loved about this disc from day one, since it’s rare to find an album so impossible to assimilate after the first few plays. I still don’t know what my favorite tracks are on this anymore, as outside of “Wet Wings” I’ve been obsessed with all of them at one point. Just like with “Wham City” on the last disc, the music here is so balls-out it’s tough to imagine Deacon topping it (and again, I think he does, even if he’s probably never going to make an album noisier than this one). At the time of its release I remember this getting compared to Merriweather Post Pavilion a lot, and even though I think it’s difficult to compare Deacon’s music to anyone, Animal Collective at least operates in the same kind of space. Still, MPP was pretty much a universal album of the year pick, while Bromst again mostly got relegated to “honorable mention” again. I guess Animal Collective do have some kind of undeniable, ethereal mystique to them, while Deacon is perhaps most famous as the voice of a cartoon lizard and puts out songs with titles like “I’m So Gay With the Boner”. But he’s a natural-born composer, capable of recording and arranging music so layered we can barely even process it, plus he’s got a sense of humor, so where’s the downside? This is the most incredible, intricate, and enjoyable music to ever deserve the description of “cat in a meat grinder”.
If I could choose one track to represent the whole Dan Deacon aesthetic, it would probably be “Aerosmith Layer” from one of his early albums called Meetle Mice. The “composition”, as it were, is simply every track on Permanent Vacation layered on top of each other, creating what essentially adds up to an unlistenable mess; a dozen Steven Tylers shouting over each other, riffs clanging and bouncing off each other haphazardly, familiar melodies becoming audible for a third of a second and then disappearing into the fold. After four minutes it starts to die down, until the end when you simply hear the honking and “hey boy, dontcha lie on the track” from “Hangman Jury”. It is hilarious, completely insane, and a good indicator of where Dan Deacon’s mind is at.
On Spiderman of the Rings, the analogue to this track would be “Jimmy Joe Roche”. Not that it’s anywhere near as cacophonic or bizarre, but it has a similar mindset. It starts with a simple, classical-sounding figure, played on what sounds like a heavily modified Atari chip. This gets doubled up and starts harmonizing with itself, while wild, chirpy melodies start to come in. The drum – just a constant “thump-thump-thump-thump” is introduced as more and more melodies pile up on top of each other. There is a ‘breakdown’ section, after which everything starts to come in at once, as the melodies start to speed up into oblivion. Imagine say, the speeding-up synth line that ends “Karn Evil 9” extrapolated into an entire song. Now multiply that by 20 and you have a good idea of what “Jimmy Joe Roche” sounds like (how many notes are there in the last thirty seconds of this thing? Ten thousand?) It is pretty, but it is also the musical equivilent of a strobe light, disorienting and more intense than the human brain can parse. Certainly Squarepusher and Aphex Twin have played around in this space, but even at a calm n’ crisp 120 BPM this stuff wouldn’t exactly be music you could dance to.
When Spiderman of the Rings was released in 2007, it really did sound completely fresh, and I think a lot of critics said that at the time, noting that it was music that would probably hold up well despite it’s rather gimmicky nature. His music really does speak to “the child inside”, to use one of the worst of all music writing cliches, not because it invokes any real nostalgia or emotion, but rather because it appeals to that seemingly infinite energy and single-mindedness that children of a certain age have. Not that the album in simple; it might be the most melodically dense album of the year. But if you can imagine a little boy banging on a toy piano as fast as he can, or smacking everything in the kitchen cupboards together, you get a sense of what Deacon’s working with here. The chant in “Wham City”, the centerpiece of the entire album, isn’t so much meant to be sung as it is yelled at the top of the lungs of as many people as possible (sample lyric: “ghosts and cats and pigs and bats with brooms and bats and wigs and rats and play big dogs like queens and kings and everyone plays drums and sings”). The opening track takes the signature laugh of Woody Woodpecker, layers it on top of itself, distorts it to hell, and builds a bunch of squiggly melodies around it. In most hands this would be a total mess, but the classically trained Deacon really knows what he’s doing here, writing melodies that play well together, putting crescendos in the right place, and sometimes even giving the listener a chance to breathe. It’s the kind of music Neil Cicierega would make if he grew up on Devo and Steve Reich instead of Devo and They Might Be Giants.
Has it held up? Certainly there’s a part of it that hasn’t; the mismatched outfits, spastic dancing, and low-budget music videos with random imagery and big flashing pastel colors makes him seem like a Tim and Eric sideshow. I’ve seen him repeatedly called a “hipster”; in fact nearly every time he’s brought up there’s that accusation. Not that “hipster” is necessarily a pejorative but the is implication that he’s making this kind of music as a joke, and anyone who enjoys it is only enjoying it ironically. They said that about Andrew W.K. as well, and he’s proven himself to be quite serious, and frankly I don’t think anyone who says this music is a joke is really listening. Oh, it’s meant to be funny alright, but it’s not the sort of thing that gets tossed off over the course of a week or whatever. It’s way too complex, dense, and fluid for that; music this fun doesn’t come easy. You can imagine Deacon sitting on fifty takes of “The Crystal Cat”, each seeking out that perfect blend of mania and joy that the album version manages to capture. The computerized banjo plucking of “Pink Batman” is actually quite beautiful; this is as low-key as Deacon gets, and even then it’s sitting at like 400 BPM. Though I feel as of now this is probably his worst album (at least, of his commercially available ones – Bromst, America, and Gliss Riffer each up the bar on what you get here), it’s a real joy to come back to. The one-two punch of “Crystal Cat” and “Wham City” is still astounding – “Wham City” is one of those epic, monumental pieces that on first listen will make you wonder how the hell he’s ever going to top it (I think “America” does, for what that’s worth). The downside is that outside of the final few minutes of “Jimmy Joe Roche” the rest of the disc doesn’t quite live up to it. Instead you get a Deaconized take on rock n’ roll (“Okie Dokie”) and funk (“Snake Mistakes”), plus a xylophone piece that’s refreshingly straightforward (“Big Milk”). All this is worth hearing of course, but those two songs tower over everything.
Electronic music in general is such an exciting frontier since it opens up so many possibilities. With every sound readily available to be sampled and sequencers able to play things that no human ever could, music really is only limited by the imagination these days. So much of the seminal electronic music of the late 80’s and early 90’s was driven by restriction – there were only so many beats and sounds you could make, so you had to make due with whatever you had. Since then there have been new advances in technology every year and yet the general form of this music remains the same – so much these days sounds like Kraftwerk or 808 State or OMD with a new coat of paint, to the point where bands are willingly handicapping themselves in order to stay creative. Even though Dan Deacon also has his own set of restrictions (he once claimed that most of his gear came from dumpsters, and I for one believe him), it’s rare to see anyone so open to creating something truly unbounded like this; sure, we can crank every single knob to the maximum now and it’s easy to rig a computer up to play every song on an Aerosmith album at once, but who exactly is willing to work in that space?