Gang Gang Dance
, May 6th, 2011 12:17
"[Our music] always takes shape as it goes along. We never have a clear idea of what it's going to be," explained Gang Gang Dance's Brian DeGraw in a recent interview with The Quietus. "We never do anything consciously."
That statement proves particularly revealing in light of his band's history up to this point. An unusually fluid entity, Gang Gang Dance's ongoing shifts in sound have been far more reflective of the unconscious evolutionary processes that shape dance music than the fairly linear development of some of their contemporaries. By working fragments of many different forms together – free improv, R&B, dancehall, global musics – their music has been strongly evocative of biological processes of self-organisation, of order assembling itself from apparent chaos thanks to the application of fundamentally simple rules. Each of their records has functioned more as a single snapshot of a group in flux rather than a definitive statement of intent, borne out in the fact that by each new album's release their live sets usually consist of an entirely new set of songs. With 2005's God's Money they perfected a virulent and disjointed strain of almost-pop, a sound most bands could happily have explored for an entire career, but by the time of its successors they'd already moved on.
The increasing accessibility of the internet over the last couple of years has created an overall acceleration in processes of musical change. Where scenes might have existed for years in a semi-vacuum, they're now thrown open within weeks, and the constant turnover of hybrid styles and blog-centric positive feedback has given rise to a stratified modern musical landscape. At higher levels lie artists that incorporate a range of different styles into coherent wholes, while beneath the surface lineages branch off into a series of hyper-specific, one-off niches (which often only exist for a matter of months before mutating into something different, under selection pressures imposed by short attention spans and shorter press coverage). Innovation across the board is usually driven by synthesis of existing styles, rather than the creation of entirely new sound palettes – again a trait characteristic of the forking paths taken by many forms of electronic music.
It's worth noting because Gang Gang Dance sit right the top of that pile: their ever-shifting, amorphous flux pre-dated the arrival of that net-assisted cultural acceleration by several years. While they could hardly be said to have inspired it, they were certainly an early indicator of what the musical landscape post-2009 might look like. And with their new album Eye Contact, they manage both to exemplify the magpie-like blur of information age music and to distance themselves from its downsides. The spoken word intro to opener 'Glass Jar', "I can hear everything. It's everything time" could scarcely be more appropriate a mission statement.
What's striking about Eye Contact, though, is how well integrated that everything is. Over the course of their existence Gang Gang have become ever more proficient at fusing styles into a unique sound. Where God's Money felt (beautifully) disjointed and roughly welded together, influences from noise and ambient musics set within scattered grooves that drifted in and out of phase like ripples on water's surface, 2008's Saint Dymphna took a shot of adrenaline straight from grime (complete with a then relatively unknown Tinchy Stryder). Eye Contact goes one further still - its production is bright and crystal clear, eschewing both the darkened spaces of their earlier music and the washed-out fuzz that's become a hallmark of much recent underground music. Its brighter palette and less meandering compositional style may make some long for the experimental group responsible for multi-faceted collages like God's Money's 'Glory In Itself/Egyptian'. But, a little like Animal Collective with Merriweather Post Pavilion, with this new record they've blossomed into something they've always threatened to become: an actual pop band.
Every Gang Gang record contains a single track that seems to perfectly encapsulate their state of mind at the time of recording: the heightened opera of 'Before My Voice Fails', 'Nicoman''s tribalist stammer, the khaki expanses of 'Desert Storm'. Here it's 'Glass Jar', a spectacular opener that sets a benchmark for the album it would be nigh on impossible to match. It's the absolute highlight and a joy to listen to, as woozy pitchbent synths gradually emerge into view through a five minute-long fog, resolving into a humid tropical jam above which Liz Bougatsos' vocals float buoyant.
The nervy party energy of UK urban music is still present and correct: 'Mindkilla' is bright and gaudy, its synths and Bougatsos' vocals cocaine-sharp above a galloping UK funky beat. The contrast with its predecessor on Saint Dymphna, 'House Jam', couldn't be greater; where in the past Bougatsos' voice was half-dissolved in a dusty wash of background instrumentation, here it's as though each element has been brought into full focus. And new drummer Jesse Lee's rhythms are tight and lucid, a far cry from the scattergun approach of previous offerings – it's easy to suspect that his contribution has been a major factor in their newfound directness of approach.
So while it would be simplistic to describe Eye Contact as Gang Gang Dance's pop album, it wouldn't be entirely inaccurate; what they've sacrificed in grit they've gained in immediacy. That's largely due to the album's overall tone. They band have stated in interviews that it's named Eye Contact because it felt more wide awake and direct – and it does – but its cover art is also notable for the absence of their former bandmate Nathan Maddox. Since his death in 2002 after being struck by lightning, his piercing gaze has been the dominant feature of the artwork of each of their albums, a lens placed between the group and the world. To match, the music within has always been darkened and contemplative in tone, elegiac even when at its most energetic ('House Jam''s Florence-pilfered line "how quickly the glamour fades" springs to mind). Along with the disappearance of Maddox's stare, that mournful and introspective tone is notably absent. As well as making their music far more accessible, that change has allowed every component of their sound to fully engage with the whole. As a result, they've never sounded more like Gang Gang Dance than they do right now.