, November 24th, 2014 10:50
There's a long tradition of twangy guitar-slingers mixing blues, jazz and early rock & roll to create a gothic stew of brooding melodies and voodoo rhythms – but Dans Dans, an instrumental trio from Belgium, take this template to new levels of sepulchral minimalism. Theirs is a music made exclusively in the shadows after midnight, the sound of film noir being run through the projector at half-speed. What at first seems to be a detail of the Milky Way on the CD inner of their latest album, appears on closer inspection to be the black marble of a gravestone.
While previous releases have centred around interpretations of songs from the likes of Charles Mingus and Ornette Coleman through to Ennio Morricone and David Bowie, 3 (yes, their third album) is mainly self-composed. Recorded live without overdubs (save for the occasional bleed-through of ghostly voices, as though heard from an old television in the next room), Dans Dans are clearly talented players, but they aren't interested in virtuosity for its own sake. Instead, like fellow Belgian Melanie de Biasio (whose haunting album No Deal from earlier this year does for the torch song what Dans Dans do for the jazz standard), they make music that oozes with measured, nocturnal mystery.
Lead track 'Zephyr' captures all of the essential Dans Dans elements: Bert Dockx's guitar playing is delicate but suspenseful, his pure tone subtly reverbed; Frederic Lyenn's bass slinks menacingly in the background; and Steven Cassiers sparingly deploys a whole array of percussion – bells, snares, cymbals, rimshots, gongs – with random precision. And like most of their songs, this one takes its time to reveal where it's going, gracefully chasing its tail. 'Take A Close Look' ups the weirdness ante, its dark, carnival atmosphere like a more playful Bad Seeds, all skeletal guitar, ambling bass and shakers. The guitar starts to cut loose, the slow screech of a tram moving through some post-war city at night, before building to a crescendo of crushed, throttled-back noise.
Duke Ellington's 'Fleurette Africaine' is played as tremulous, witching hour jazz, reminding me (as elsewhere on 3) of first-gen post-rockers Billy Mahonie (whose What Becomes Before is a lost classic). Dans Dans warm to the noir theme, with 'Bloed En Dromen' coming on like a sleepy Lalo Schifrin score to the scene in a detective movie where the Chandler-esque hero sits in the gloom of his office, weighing up the contradictions of his latest case. A sinister rumble of bass and drums signals a change – someone's coming up the stairs. There's a teasing hesitation, then an explosion of splintering guitar as the door gets kicked in.
The rest of the tracks illustrate other scenes from this imaginary film. 'Memento Mori' is pinned down by a sluggish beat, a dying man pulling himself across a floor, Dockx's guitar cruelly meandering like blood slowly trickling from the wound in his guts. The sound moves from dry to affected, creating odd ripples in the air, becoming increasingly ominous by dint of repetition alone. 'Coffee Grounds' rides in on a flurry of toms, a chase scene through the Mardi Gras parade with Dick Dale-style guitar wailing over the top like a siren. 'Miraggio' sounds as though somebody's stamping down on the earth of a freshly dug grave, the reflective and oddly familiar melody moving at a different speed to the percussion. There's some nerve-jangling wood block work before the guitar diffuses into a noisy, urgent solo, the dead man scrabbling to get out of the hole. Finally, 'Htes To Vradi Sto Teke Mas', a Greek folk ballad from the 1930s, winds its way through a subterranean tunnel, the guitar reduced to a foreboding ambient drone as bells jingle nervously in the background.
While it's occasionally a little too one-paced and monochrome for its own good, 3 demonstrates impressive restraint throughout, allowing tension to develop naturally and rewarding deep listening. For insomniacs everywhere, Dans Dans have just made your nightmares come true.