Monday, May 9, 2011
Album: Eye Contact
Release date: May 10, 2011
Rating: ******** (8/10)
After 2008's exceptional Saint Dymphna, Gang Gang Dance are back to business as usual for their 4AD debut, Eye Contact, out tomorrow. The band are the uncontested masters of rhythm 'n' synth experimental dub, weaving waves of electronic sound and Lizzi Bougatsos's enchanting/crackpot vocals through ritualistic percussion and club-worthy bass. Eye Contact is a distinctive album, but it falls well within the boundaries established by the band's previous releases - there's not a lot of new ground covered here.
GGD is not an easy band. They've never handed their music to their listeners in a simple pop-song package. (The closest they got was a handful of tracks on Saint Dymphna.) As a result, GGD can be a challenging and frustrating listen, and Eye Contact is no exception. The eleven-plus minute first track is more than half intro, just wafts of synth sound, light cymbals and snippets of a man's voice. I have to admire the band's self-control and somehow, it comes off more ballsy than indulgent when they dare to ask the same patience of their listeners. In the fourth minute of the track, the small cymbals give way to rumbling toms while the synths gradually begin to carve out melodic motifs. But it's only after the six minute mark that the song truly begins and we first hear Bougatsos's familiar ululation.
The album pushes the band's mysticism to the fore with three interludes (titled respectively "∞" "∞∞" and "∞∞∞"), the first of which features a stunning sample of what sounds like an eastern orthodox hymn (according to The Guardian, it's Bougatsos's late uncle) laid gently in an analog-sounding bed of synth. The third interlude, sung by Bougatsos, sounds equally religious, drawing on eastern European and Middle Eastern scales that carry through the next and final track, "Thru and Thru." The band's shamanistic instincts were apparent on their last two LPs but never so literal as here.
Eye Contact is certainly a remarkable album and displays the band's control as well as their unending passion for riddim. The band is fascinated with every beat they can find, and they've searched the world for groove, drawing on sources that range from UK underground dance music to reggaeton to South Asian percussion ensembles. Surprisingly, given the breadth and spirit of the album, it doesn't overreach, nor does it sound bloated or narcissistic. First of all, Eye Contact can't overreach because the band is just that good. And it is saved from narcissism by the band's very real curiosity about the musical territory they inhabit. It's immediately evident that no one but Gang Gang Dance could have made this album.
But on the other hand, it hasn't got the richness or the punch of Saint Dymphna. A few tracks are exceptions: the club-inflected soundworld of "Adult Goth," the reggaeton-house anthem "Mindkilla" and the deep post-funk groove of "Romance Layers" come close, but nothing here is quite as good as "First Communion" and "House Jam."
The difference, and the reason that this album isn't quite equal to its predecessor, is in songwriting. Gang Gang Dance is one for sprawling epics that twist and morph and never give a hint of verse, chorus, bridge or any other recognizable building block. Sometimes the result is tight and bold, like Saint Dymphna's epic "House Jam" but other times, it can sound aimless and begs for an editor.
There are some duds on Eye Contact as well. "Chinese High" is uncharacteristically bright, even hinting momentarily at calypso. While that in itself is not bad, the band pushes it past sunny and into corny with the synthesizer's melodic motif at the end of the song. "Sacer" also gets a little lost with a melody that's simply too formless to carry a six minute song.
The final track, "Thru and Thru," may be the album's strongest. Eastern melodies intertwine with warm layers of sound and a beat that seamlessly merges the "tribal" with a eurodisco nightclub pulse. It's a perfect closer for the album, showing both sides of the record's split personality - its 3 AM clubhopper and its mystical seer - and finally satisfying both.
An album as bold and accomplished as Eye Contact shouldn't be a disappointment, but the band has simply set the bar so high that I've come to expect a revolution from them on every LP. Eye Contact isn't that, it's more about honing the band's existing sound, articulating its longing and its euphoria, going deeper into the trance. It's an album of exploration, like all of GGD's albums, but its exploration doesn't cover new latitudes, it just plunges deeper and reaches higher. It doesn't always succeed in these endeavors and can come off as detached and disconnected from the real world in a frustrating and at times even arrogant way. But the album's failures are part of its charm - its power comes from its fearlessness, its willingness to fail and to document its failures. That's what makes this album worthwhile.