Photo Credit: Lindsey Byrnes
There comes a moment of understanding when a band has been through lineup changes throughout their career with a tenure of over 10 years, the band eventually reaches a sort of stagnation. Perhaps there is even a sense of loss in their work and the smell of defeat weighs a heavy presence over their latest work. This is not the case with Dance Gavin Dance and their 8th studio album, Artificial Selection. In fact, it is so far from the truth that you would even think that this is the band’s sophomore album with how forceful the record presents itself from the very first track, “Son of Robot.”
Every single member of this band has grown exponentially, no matter how long their tenure. With each album, Tim, Will, Tilian, Matt and Jon find their footing and take off running into a vast dimension of their undeniable talent and ear for delicious melodies. Will Swan time and time again proves how masterful he is not only at guitar play and writing, but rather his open mindedness that trancendes him to compose melodies that are simultaneously explosive, tender yet grisly pieces to grace their own concoction of a genre, dubbed Swancore. Personally, one likes to think of Will as a mad scientist in his own studio, creating these songs from the depths of his intricate and always running consciousness. Aside from Will’s orchestration and musical contribution, every member including Will within this record stands out. Whether it is Tilian’s vocal range, Tim’s impressive bass work, Matt’s furious whipping around on his drum kit or Jon Mess’ thundering roars. To help round out such an impressive album, some beautiful and well crafted touches were provided from their guest appearances. Their moments alone also stand out and help mold Artificial Selection into the beast that it is with the helping hands of Zachary Garren (Strawberry Girls), Martin Bianchini (Secret Band), Louie Baltazar, Kurt Travis (formerly of DGD), Andrew Wells (Eidola) and Jessica Esposito.
While the band has shifted into a powerhouse, the collaboration from their guests and multiple producers also presented itself as an influence. Going against the norm of having one producer and one full band collaboration, DGD took the advantage of opening the door to not one, but three producers, including Erik Ron, Kris Crummett and Dryw Owens. Now, this would seem like a recipe for convoluted opinions and too many cooks in one kitchen, but according to Tilian Pearson, this turned out to be the perfect approach to such an offbeat record. “I think that Jon had a good experience recording vocals with Erik Ron when we did the punk goes pop song [“That’s What I Like”], that we recorded with him and I liked working with Kris Crummet and with Erik Ron, so I didn’t have a preference! I just went with the one that Jon preferred and Tim recorded with Dryw Owens when we did “Summertime Gladness” single and the bass turned out really well, so he went with him. Then Matt and Will always enjoyed tracking with Crummett so it just worked out that way.” explained the vocalist.
So what can we expect from this album? First we need to look at the title: “I guess you can say that yes, retroactively Artificial Selection was what we did when we chose pieces to record and what made it onto the album.” Explained, Tilian. “That wasn’t conscious either. It was mainly something that could describe the album art and was kind of like a catchy phrase. We had Instant Gratification which is already a widely recognized phrase, so we wanted to put something similar out there.”
So what exactly is Artificial Selection in terms of definition? It is defined by selecting desired traits to improve perfection in a genetically altered creation. In other words, it is a nicer way of saying Eugenics. What is so interesting about this title, aside from the grisly definition is that it fits so perfectly with their evolution. There really isn’t any logistics to DGD’s writing, more so that it is conceived around what they have learned from the last record and how can they grow and branch out from there with freely experimenting. With siphoning the knowledge of their past records, they are able to harness their skills and broaden their reach. With Will Swan writing songs just before their tenure on last year’s Warped Tour and coming back to writing the rest, it fits with as really this album isn’t one specifically cohesive piece, but rather comes off like a selection of the best singles conjured in the studio. It turned out to be a natural fit. Overall the album is almost like a mirror of its ownself. It is layered with complexities, dynamic but sleek and volatile yet groovy. Sure, it is their least collaborative in the studio, yet the band individually brought harmony and unison in the chaotic structure to create an impressive balance.
“This time we also had some pretty good quality demos which is nice and we took a lot longer – the whole process took a lot longer than usual. There was more time in-between the first demo and then the 2nd batch of demos. We even recorded the instruments and then took time off, did a tour and then came back and did the vocals. It just worked out so much better for us with the end result.”
DGD aren’t strangers to releasing some quite unique videos for their songs. Unfortunately, so far there haven’t been anymore videos of Jon Mess and his smile screaming, but instead there seems to be more depth to these visual aesthetics this time around. Though, they may not be intentional for the most part, the song content does stand out enough musically to be translated onto screen for some intriguing visuals.
The color schemes for the videos have peaked my interest for the past few albums. I’ve noticed that green shades have this sinister presence with the negative definition of the color as stagnation, as can be seen in “Betrayed by the Game”, “We Own the Night” and “Inspire the Liars”. However, lately there has been a focus on red which is the total opposite. This hue screams of rage, passion and domination. Though it was not cognitive, it does represent strongly of the transition that these gentlemen are making within their works. “It definitely wasn’t conscious.” says Tilian. “Those were the colors that we liked when we designed the album. The last two times, maybe even the last three, we would design the cover art firsthand then have Mattias [Adolfsson] draw it and then name the album after the album art is done. We had a concept and we knew what we wanted visually, but not exactly what it was called.”
In Midnight Crusade, we see Tilian dressed and in a job position that seems reminiscent of Anthony Hopkins character Robert Ford from HBO’s Westworld. To perfectly coincide with this, there is a “host” of Jon Mess lying down next him in the midst of being programmed. I had the pleasure of speaking with Will Swan when Instant Gratification came out in 2015 and we had a lovely discussion of how the technology of today is both quietly and loudly integrated its way into how the world functions on a day to day basis. Although Tilian said there is no direct correlation, it can be looped back to this video as the Jon Mess host becomes self aware a la Logan in Get Out when his picture is taken
Though the video comes off as like Westworld in the mind of Dance Gavin Dance, it does pose those questions of how Mankind doesn’t know their limits with science and we are always trying to play God, by finding some way of immortality to exist forever. It is our hubris and eventual downfall. Not to mention the idea of what makes a human, human? Is it morality? Is it having a consciousness? Or perhaps our hubris is what makes us human as since as the earliest records show, we have always strived to live forever in some sort of capacity, whether it be physical or glory. Unfortunately, there is no “next on” for Dance Gavin Dance does Westworld, but one does hope for a future song or video to be about Jon Mess being a host all along.
The video for “Count Bassy” is by far one if not the, but one of the strangest videos to date. Personally, I am a huge fan of Stanley Kubrick and David Lynch, so it was quite pleasing to see how this video was a mashing of these two artistic integrities along with a “Summertime Gladness” feel. With Dance Gavin Dance being a band that aurally combines such different elements in a unique manner, the video correlated visually with their musical talents. In one scene, all the photos of each band member has a word to match them. Tilian being the verbal “thread”, Jon’s volatile approach (“fire”), will’s song writing being the “pulse”, matt beating “life” into their works, and Tim’s “blood” being the vitality/passion that holds them together. It is like a fucked up version of the 5 elements, if you will.
There is a heavy handed David Lynch feel between the black and white, the handicapped fellow in the wheelchair and Lynch’s famous use of red curtains, which serve as a metaphysical barrier between the real world and the “spirit” world. The interpretation of what exactly is going on is up in the air and if the band and the director really were inspired by these two titan directors, then like them, we will never know and be forced to theorize. Fans of DGD are always theorizing and collaborating with each other on what each lyric or video content means. It does leave a lasting impression on the band. [In regards to the fan’s theories] “They are the other half of the brain! [laughs] I feel like it has always been this way. I don’t want to spoil any of them, but you know some of them have to be true! Or even better accurate!”
Especially when it comes to the haunting tune of the record’s last song, “Evaporate.” The day the album was released, there was a widespread panic that this was DGD’s ‘Swan Song.’ How this came to fruition is because there are quite a few references made to past DGD songs, stretching all the way back to their first full length Downtown Battle Mountain. Tilian was quick to squash any breaking up rumors or rumblings that he was grooming guest vocalist on said song, Andrew Wells to take his place.
“A lot of the stuff we do is just we feel it out and it winds up happening and comes naturally and then it is always fun to analyze it afterwards.” Tilian comments. “We don’t have this huge master plan. We normally just analyze afterwards and go, ‘oh yeah that is interesting.’ Sometimes it is kind of funny to have people point stuff out to us, like you are now. People really dove into the song, “Evaporate” as the end of the band. Some person just randomly made it up and posted about it and then it caught fire and a lot of momentum and then it became this pretty widely accepted theory. So, no intention of even hinting at the end of an era or anything other than it being the last song on the album!”
Recently the band closed out their Spring 2018 tour with Sianvar, I See Stars and Erra. Having the opportunity to go, I was able to attend their show in Westbury and was blown away. No matter how many times in the past 11 years that I have seen Dance Gavin Dance perform, never once have I walked away dissatisfied. Personally, I have never attended a show with a different band and could see new and old fans both mosh and then switch to dancing with the tonal shifts in each song with such fluidity. No matter how new or veteraned one can be at attending a Dance Gavin Dance show, there is an overflowing sense of community. If you will, each attendee brings their own lively energy that spreads a sense of warm welcome within the venues and bursts into waves once the band takes the stage.
“I was the same way as a kid.” admits Tilian. “I would go to shows and I was always pleasantly shocked at how positive the vibes were. How much it brought people together and people are picking each other up and dancing. A show in itself can create community in its own. I remember going to see Thursday and they were playing medium sized clubs and the shows that they played. It was the most positive and good energy the whole time. If we can aspire to that then I’m happy!”
One needs to remember that with artists that have been around for as long as they have, they aren’t interested in making sure you hear what their fans want to hear, but rather that their listeners grow with them. Watching from the crowd at each show, you perceive just how much has developed since Downtown Battle Mountain into Artificial Selection. Dance Gavin Dance is one of those rare gems that get better with each record and that’s not to say that any of the old albums are terrible, but that each one of them are like those aforementioned five elements in “Count Bassy”. Their entire discography makes up of who they are as a band and as individuals, just with a little more evolution each time.
“The difference between right when Mothership came out to right now is huge.” Tilian says with a hint of rightfully deserved pride in his voice. “It is the biggest growth that the band has ever seen and it is pretty cool. There are always people that come out and meet us. What is cool is how we can be new to some of the people who come to these shows. For some of them, the first song that they heard was on the last album, or even this [Artificial Selection] album and they tell me that “Care” was the first song that they have ever heard from us and they are already buying packages and have already listened to the whole back catalog. It is absolutely amazing to see all of this come together.”