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Articles and thoughts by Peter Holslin

Year-End 2008

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Check out Cokemachineglow’s year-end coverage, including the top 50 albums of 2008. I wrote the blurb for Gang Gang Dance’s long-awaited Saint Dymphna, which won the No. 3 spot on the list:

To read the reviews of Saint Dymphna is to be assaulted with a string of increasingly disparate references: ambient, dub, grime, reggaeton, My Bloody Valentine, Magik Marker, In The Nursery, Deutsch-Amerikanische Freundschaft, “Brazilian guitar,” “various strains of Central African music,” etc. Effectively, Saint Dymphna isn’t an “exercise in trendy appropriation” or a “pastiche,” but it is “a worthy amalgam” and, as the Glow put it, “possibly the most complex and weird dance album of the year.”

I can just hear the band members’ sighs. “We just make music, man,” said guitarist Josh Diamond in November, when I asked him if he felt Saint Dymphna was more mainstream than 2005’s landmark God’s Money, which some critics have suggested. “It’s not up to us. People can decide whatever they want, if it’s more mainstream or less.”

To be sure, nobody can deny that a dizzying mix of worldly elements weave through Saint Dymphna’s exploratory 44 minutes. A syncopated reggaeton beat drives the otherworldly “First Communion”; Tynchy Stryder brings grime to the electro-rocker “Princes”; a robotic old-school techno beat collides with vaguely Arabesque guitar licks in “Blue Nile”; new wave romanticism, rave bombast and Pro Tools-style studio trickery merge in “House Jam.” But Diamond is right: different listeners can make many different connections, depending on who they are and what captures their imagination. Streaming into my ears, this record conjured the celebratory abandon of intricate Arabic dabke (or “stomping of the feet”) and the cosmopolitan boldness of Bollywood, without the daring string sections. But with each listen, the associations gradually melted away. And I realized that Saint Dymphna‘s slow builds, hypnotic transitions and sustained bursts of catharsis are inimitably distinct.

Naked City’s schizophrenic “Speedfreaks” practically defined musical pastiche. This is the polar opposite. Both are children of the composition era, in which the old ritual and consumer-based contexts have given way to a nuanced exploration of media itself. But while Naked City’s jazz-metal noisecore merely proved to be one of John Zorn’s wackier experiments, Gang Gang Dance’s raw polyglot tongue—Diamond’s incandescent and percussive MIDI-wired guitar, Lizzie Bougatsos’ wispy and echo-warped voice, Brian DeGraw’s intricate employment of crappy Yamaha drum pads and warm modular synths, former drummer Tim DeWitt’s nimble beats—seems to have revolutionary potential. Like jazz, hip-hop, and punk, working alongside the best of electroacoustic pop contemporaries Black Dice and Animal Collective, Saint Dymphna has the potential to galvanize new unities out of elements that once appeared completely unrelated. This can help create a whole new musical—if not social—framework.

Yes, I have some abstract and incredibly high dreams for society. But what I want from Gang Gang Dance is reasonable: just keep doing what you’re doing. Our associations may differ, but this is something we can agree on. “The only sort of plan is to try and move forward,” Diamond said. “To try and not rest, or like get stuck in some specific frame.”

This is my blurb on High Places’ self-titled full-length, which came in as No. 50:

I love fast music full of unadulterated aggression. I love dark, feverish ambience. This especially when the destruction of the world and the set-backs in my personal life join together to ruin my day, putting a subdued grimace on my face and a groan of hopelessness into the bottom of my throat, training my eyes to the eternal forward, enabling me to block out the world as I walk as fast as I possibly can down the sidewalk. In my mind’s eye, I’m weaving through the wreckage of life.

Inevitably, I grow weary. I take a big, deep breath and put on High Places. These implacable, sugary melodies, Mary Pearson’s dreamy, reverberated vocals, Rob Barber’s interlocking percussive amulets and drum pad—all of it is so remarkably soft and yet so detailed that it can never grow tiresome. In my mind’s eye, the waste has cleared and my future child and I have followed a rainbow-colored cobblestone pathway to the county fair. It’s not any old county fair, mind you, but one in a faraway wonderland populated by pixies and frog princes. Each of them is equipped with a valuable lesson to be learned, about exploring different perspectives, about taking nothing for granted, about harnessing constructive powers to face the challenges in life.

Sometimes, I find myself listening to this record two or three times in a row. Inevitably, I’ll put on something a bit more aggro. The grimace and the groan and the frustrated tunnel vision will return. But I will always have High Places—and my child will have it, too. And if I grow tired of the record, it’s only because I’ll have listened to it too many times to count.

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Written by Peter Holslin

December 29, 2008 at 6:39 pm

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