For Fans Of
To paraphrase that popular Eric Andre Show GIF, I’m going to say something brave yet controversial: outside of the odd song, I don’t care for anything Dance Gavin Dance put out in the previous decade. To every late-twenty-something fan who ten years ago had “Raw XD” on their Myspace and used a camera flash selfie as their profile pic, saying that is probably heresy. Blasphemy akin to thinking that Hayden Christensen did a good job in the prequels, or like buying a Metal Gear Solid game after Konami booted out Hideo Kojima from the series.
Dance Gavin Dance’s 2008 self-titled album? Excluding ‘Me and Zoloft Get Along Just Fine‘, Alex no care for that English. 2009’s ‘Happiness‘? Other than their longtime collaborative artist, Mattias Adolfsson, kicking off the band’s recurring artwork theme (as seen above), only a giant “meh” roll from my tongue. 2013’s ‘Acceptance Speech‘? Nope, sorry, I can’t get past Tilian Pearson’s awful vocal production and the pitch-correction. Their debut album, ‘Downtown Battle Mountain‘? Sure, I’d probably like it if I was 15 again. And it’s 2011 “sequel”? People only seem to care about it because it shares the same name as their debut LP.
Yet all of that changed with 2015’s solid ‘Instant Gratification‘, the first time that any Dance Gavin Dance release had grabbed me in a meaningful way; digging its hooks in real deep. Then, 2016’s ‘Mothership‘ kept up this strong output, and while I personally prefer the predecessor over ‘Mothership‘, one cannot deny the sheer strength of songs like ‘Chucky vs. The Giant Tortoise‘, ‘Inspire The Liars‘, and ‘Young Robot‘, to name but three. And that stand-alone single from 2017, the funky ‘Summertime Gladness‘? God, that was just the definition of a beautiful summer anthem!
As for the Sacramento group’s newest album, the stellar ‘Artificial Selection‘, Dance Gavin Dance sound exactly like what everyone expects Dance Gavin Dance to sound like in 2018. Yet the defining trait of this record is that it’s just really fucking good, man. I mean, what other bands can, on their 8th album no less, still be as big, as well-loved, and as downright consistent as DGD are right here? The answer: very few. (We call this “The Thrice Effect“).
‘Artificial Selection‘ has all the usual DGD trademarks up its sleeve. Will Swan’s immaculate chord voicing, wicked tone, colourful guitar harmonies, and solid riff output; that awesome tonal dynamic between Tilian cleans and Jon Mess’s raw screams; those melodically soothing pop-hooks; those explosive post-hardcore sections; to the polished Kris Crummett production. So while this is a familiar outing for DGD, it’s done superbly well. This is “swancore” in it’s finest hour!
Swan’s guitar work stands out as expected, from his well-placed licks, memorable melodies, jazzy and funk parts, to the wonderfully characterful playing he exhibits across the record. (Also, if we’re keeping score, this is the first DGD album to not feature a vocal performance from him since 2008). Bassist Tim Feerick lays down some awesome low-end ground-work on this record and his tone is what so many young bassists out there should be focusing on. Longtime drummer Matt Mingus may not be playing as complex as his past works, but he holds the band’s rhythmic pocket right down pat with solid, driving percussion. Want some examples of each’s talents? Just listen to the whole album! The band continually bring their A-game throughout as individuals and as a tight instrumental unit, making this LP the grand sum of all its moving parts.
This is Tilian’s fourth effort with Dance Gavin Dance, and the singer has really come into his own since first joining – developing light years beyond his earlier Tides Of Man days. Even with the noticeable grit and wear-and-tear to his vocals here (which I personally love, as it gives his voice far more character), the frontman has never sounded this in-sync with his band mates, with his range being as good as ever. I must also give a very special mention to Tilian’s yin; the yang of screamer and co-founder, Jon Mess. Jon really is the underclass hero of this record. His vicious, throaty screaming is as raw and harsh as it’s ever been on ‘Artificial Selection‘. Now, many will tell you that this is “Tilian’s record” or that he alone defines DGD, but that’s just ignorant: this is no more “Tilian” than the last three albums have been and Jon sure as shit defines their sound too.
For instance, letting Jon take the vocal reigns on the circa 2003 mathy-metalcore rager, ‘The Rattler‘, was a stroke of genius. And fuck, those final 90 seconds of ‘Midnight Crusade’? That might be the greatest section of music Dance Gavin Dance have ever written – period! On that particular track, the breakdown is where we see Jon cut loose and drop some of the most revealing lines he’s perhaps ever penned. Sure, “My business is pregnant and flaunting off nude/I’m smoking a chicken I took out the coupe” is just par for the strange Doctor Mess course. But there’s also some really telling lyrics here, like “Show off addictions and make it sound fiction/You aren’t doing art if you’re dead in the park“, and “If you feel like you died, show ’em you have/Give up your life for the virtual clap“. I see this as Jon and DGD biting down into the whole circus of the media/critic/fan commentary and appreciation cycle that goes into how we create and consume art, and the authenticity or artificialness of it all. It’s breaking down the walls between band and listener, and I’m all about that directness!
I’ve seen other reviews comments that this record is too long. On the contrary, and unlike this review, I feel it’s long enough, with no egregious filler to be found. While I have my own personal faves, each song stands strong over these 14 cuts. ‘Flash‘, ‘Hair Song‘, or the racey and Tim-centric ‘Slouch‘ are tracks which might scream “filler” to some, but these songs more than earn their keep. Which is the great thing about ‘Artificial Selection‘ – it remains consistent across all 14 tracks, with each tune having something to say. Meaning there’s just so much to talk about here. So let’s do that!
Continuing their decade-running narrative about the ‘Robot With Human Hair‘, opener ‘Son Of Robot‘ sees DGD using their classic metaphor of something inhuman becoming human to discuss relationships ending and starting. Musically, it’s about as DGD as they come but Jessica Esposito’s flute melodies heard early on are a really nice touch to help spruce things up. (She also did the flute parts on ‘Young Robot‘ too, by the way). Then, from ‘Son Of Robot, this album just bounds from strength to strength.
The bright guitars, punchy double-kick patterns and huge gang vocals in the choruses of ‘Flash‘ create a flashy (sorry) exterior to deal with the facade of friendships, popularity and the nature of celebrity. Smile for the camera and all that jazz. Likewise, the catchy and pop-punk focused ‘Story Of My Bros‘ show off DGD’s pop and melodic tendencies. But this isn’t shallow radio pop nonsense; no, this song is poppy in the sense of it being vocally and instrumentally catchy as fuck. Which betrays the self-hating lyrics (“I jump off a cliff, I like this“), but c’mon: that’s the kind of contrast we all come to DGD for!
Apparently written about I, Tonya, (or at least inspired by it) ‘Bloodsucker‘ takes aim at virtue-signalling and victim-roles. It also takes a dig at Twitter with Tilian’s off-the-cut remark of “pigeons they’re howling“, lamenting the pathetic show if it all. While pushing their “swancore” sound to its extreme, ‘Bloodsucker‘ doesn’t actually see Swan on guitar duties, rather featuring Martin Bianchini (Secret Band) and Andrew Wells (Strawberry Girls, who just dropped a hit new banger last week) on lead and rhythm respectively. Absolutely surprising no one, both guitarists nail their roles here!
In a sleight of hand, ‘Count Bassy‘ isn’t that bassy or as jazzy as you’re probably thinking from that title. However, its outro creates one of the group’s strongest musical contrasts to date. As Tilian sings high with an insanely hooky “da-daaa-daa” melody, molding with the guitars and locking in with the rhythm of Tim’s bass work, Jon screams his head off for one massive sonic juxtaposition. It’s an incredible payoff in terms of a climax and it seems to be the most live catered song of the whole lot too. Also, this song has a bloody kazoo in it. Way more songs should feature kazoo’s, just sayin’.
‘Care‘ is a trip down memory line about old friends (or perhaps past lovers?), remembering fond memories of getting high off clean ecstasy at a Prodigy show in 2003 while wearing JNCO jeans. (#NeverForget). It’s a moment-in-time piece from a far simpler time, whether or not Jon/Tilian/the band are still close to this person or these people mentioned. Also, there are bongos in the song’s final pre-chorus bridge. Again, more songs should use bongos. They’re just fucking cool!
Elsewhere, ‘Suspended In This Disaster‘ hones in on being stuck in a rut, with Tilian wanting to “cancel my pride, for an ounce of faith” just to get out this suspension, as it were. As far as DGD songs go, it’s one one of more classical examples of their vocal dynamic and songwriting formula, but I ain’t complaining when it’s delivered this well.
The mournful 2000’s post-hardcore sound of ‘Gospel Burnout‘ is a massive standout for the record, hinting at different vibe for the band. It’s a scathing indictment of human flaws, how our pure intentions morph over time, and how we should never meet our heroes, lest we realize just how human they are. Even seeing Tilian offer listeners some cheery “advice” in the shape of “do yourself a favour die young, ignorance is celebrated“. In the wake of so many bands being outed for the skeletons in their closet over the past year and a half, this is an incredibly topical and relevant song; one of the most serious pieces DGD have put out of late.
One aspect of ‘Artificial Selection‘ that I adore is just how collaborative it is. One such amazing moment comes at the mid-point with the darker, sorrowful and twinkling emo sounds of ‘Shelf Life‘ (the first of two DGD songs here to feature a guest vocalist since ‘Happiness‘). Mainly because ‘Shelf Life‘ doesn’t so much feature ex-A Lot Like Birds/current Royal Coda frontman Kurt Travis as it plays full host to the guy’s gorgeous vocal talents. Hold up, Kurt singing on a DGD album? Did we go back in time by ten years to the days of ‘Alex English‘? Not quite but this a special one-off studio return for the band and Kurt, one that longtime die-hard fans will be no doubt losing their shit over.
Tilian and Jon take the back seat here, with the former adding occasional harmonies and small lyrical lines in the verses, while the latter contributes his screaming to the chorus. I fucking love this approach, as Dance have been kind and mature enough to offer the spotlight to their former frontman, with Kurt spending this composition’s length sitting right in his element; reminding us all of why he became such a well-loved vocalist in the first damn place. As for the instrumentals, the song plays out are like a slower, less busy and less experimental A Lot Like Birds song, but that’s no bad thing for it slots cohesively into this LP’s sound.
The second and final vocal feature to be found on ‘Artificial Selection‘ comes in the closing moments with ‘Evaporate‘, where Eidola’s Andrew Wells lends his soaring voice to the Dance Gavin Dance style. While Andrew does play on other songs here, on this track we see the Ediola member sing soulfully. The riff-vocal interplay overall is also so well-written and executed and ‘Evaporate‘ is easily the best closing song DGD have written for any of their records.
Thematically, my hunch here is that ‘Evaporate‘ is in some part a fuck-you towards the band’s previous frontman, Jonny Craig. Jonny burned them hard over the years and certain lyrics here carry a weight of bitterness to them: “Your words lost their power/You can aim down fire/We’ll be down here living how we want“; Jon’s repeated screams of “never coming back“, or even one of Andrew’s line of “You always watch me stumble down/While you wait for me to drown“. I’m probably wrong in my assumption, and there’s a part of me that thinks this is DGD simply addressing their critics and their own inner doubts. But fuck it, I’m putting that thought out there into the world.
Another thing that leads me to and from both of those analyses is the way this song’s outro references a host of old tracks, in what is a great moment of self-referential musicality. It’s like a quick summation of DGD’s career in a “previously on” moment. What with the band diving through blink-and-you’ll-miss-them easter eggs of: ‘We Own The Night‘, ‘Me and Zoloft Get Along Just Fine‘, ‘Surprise! I’m From Cuba, Everyone Has One Brain‘, ‘And I Told Them I Invented Times New Roman‘, ‘Acceptance Speech‘, and ‘Tree Village‘. While Tilian recently dismissed claims this was DGD admitting they’d end soon, this reprisal adds a real sense of finality for not just the song and the record, but where the band are at in their career currently. ‘Evaporate‘ is a loving send-off to their past, but also a warm embrace of what their future holds.
After 13 years, eight records, a laundry list of former members, and countless interpersonal dramas, Dance Gavin Dance have aged into their current status beautifully well; putting out their best material to date. There ain’t nothing artificial or shallow about the glory of ‘Artificial Selection’. After all, just as Jon Mess screams on ‘The Rattler’, “Retired is a word that I hate“. Trust me, Dance Gavin Dance are just getting warmed up!
1. Son Of Robot
2. Midnight Crusade
3. Suspended In This Disaster
5. Count Bassy
7. The Rattler
8. Shelf Life (Feat. Kurt Travis)
10. Story Of My Bros
11. Hair Song
12. Gospel Burnout