Saturday, March 9, 2013

Melt Sounds: Miss Machine and Impersonal Construction (Modernism and Pop Music 3)


- The Dillinger Escape Plan, "Sunshine the Werewolf"

This is my third post on modernism and pop music. Check out the first two posts in the series here and here.

I stumbled upon The Dillinger Escape Plan when I was getting into metal in middle school and Between the Buried and Me's The Silent World was the heaviest record that I had ever heard.  Miss Machine had just come out and I was immediately interested when I saw reviews touting it as the brutal end of the genre.  I bought the record and immediately fell in love with it, but I was never impressed by it musically.  I was struck by it as a statement. Fair warning: if you had a hard time listening to Death Grips, it doesn't get any easier here.

In the original post that inspired me to write this series, I described Dillinger Escape Plan as an exploratory band. But it's not easy being truly experimental in metal.  They have choppy waters to navigate. The metal world, despite its increasing diversification, has often been slave to various images of inane masculinity.  From the moronic "virility" of the eighties to the tortured "pathos" of the aughts, the melodrama of metal through the ages is not hard to document.  Metal has also been a platform for every conceivable political perspective.  The genre is full of skinny metalcore guys that read Noam Chomsky's political writings alongside Game of Thrones, bizarro-country reactionaries, and unrepentant European neo-fascists. But DEP manages to deftly avoid these genre cliches and move toward something different.  Alongside their mathcore contemporaries The Locust and Daughters, DEP embrace the raw complexity of metal while eschewing the Power Rangers guitar heroics of acts like Dragonforce.  They embrace the intensity of metal while moving beyond the adolescent sentiments of their grindcore forebears.  In this respect, Miss Machine-era DEP fits cleanly into the constellation of other acts that we've covered in this series; like The Weeknd and Death Grips, they distill undertones of a genre into a well-formed and groundbreaking modern statement.

While DEP may indulge in some genre conventions, their particular brand of jazz-metal reveals the technically monstrous undergirding of the genre when the tradition and the histrionics are melted away. Like both The Weeknd and Death Grips, Dillinger Escape Plan modulates and contorts the human voice until it becomes profoundly impersonal.  I'm reminded here of their fellow mathletes Converge, whose lyrics would fit perfectly into a particularly erudite and fatalistic high school student's poetry diary, but whose vocal approach mutilates the human voice beyond recognition. Skipping away from this sort of underlying attempt at poetics and the genocidal pretensions of bands like Dimmu Borgir, DEP's lyrics display a distinctively cryptic cynicism.  Take, for example, the first lyrics of the opening track of Miss Machine, "Panasonic Youth", which reads like a mission statement for the rest of the record:

We wrote these plans, took the order, the architecture
And followed them to the end till the gears ground cold
And relentless, there was no remorse, we had none,
We kept on with no trace of a regret

Miss Machine is relevant and original because DEP realized that modern metal's narrative arc has been stuck in a rut, and conceivably entirely exhausted by the efforts of genre adventurers like Isis.  Even its literary forays have been fairly unimaginative. As captured by the lyrics above, DEP turned away from the straightforward agendas of its medium brothers and embraced the idea of metal as product.  Instead of sounding like organic compositions, the songs on Miss Machine sound like they were built.  And they weren't built with new materials; they were made out of scrap.  Any concessions to melody sound like they were cut out of another song because it was all that the bandmembers had on hand.  The "music" consistently takes a backseat to a haphazard structure.  Take, for example, "Set Fire to Sleeping Giants".  The weakest moments of this song sound like the blandest seconds of modern metal, but they're salvaged by the incorporation of careful jazz elements and a coda of unceasing hammering:

Black metal outfits have spent countless hours trying to convince us that their picture of the evil and explicitly anti-human nature of the world around us is a dangerously close look at reality.  DEP paints a much more convincing picture. They describe a world that is profoundly apersonal, consisting of melted together machines, both human and non-human.  The album cover of Miss Machine is instructive here:

Miss Machine cover art

In "Sunshine the Werewolf", Greg Puciato yelps "We fucked like a nuclear war".  In DEP's modernity, weapons, machines, and people overlap and muddle, bringing catastrophe to orgasm and vice versa.  This is not to say that Miss Machine represents a clean break from every record before it.  As mentioned above, DEP's originality is born from their commitment to the genre that birthed them. They managed to capture, for a moment, the ends and the limits of the genre of which they are a part.

No comments:

Post a Comment