The Dillinger Escape Plan’s much-heralded 1999 release Calculating Infinity was one of those albums that inspired awe in its listeners, despite the fact that it was next to impossible to comprehend. The band’s music, an ear-splitting, mind-boggling combination of metal, hardcore, and jazz fusion dubbed “math metal”, often bordered on virtuosic, taking the progressive traits of Swedish metal masters Meshuggah, the frantic tempos of hardcore punk and threw in plenty of free jazz drumming and oddball, Frank Zappa style guitar harmonies, as vocalist Dimitri Minakakis howled indecipherable lyrics in a monotone scream. The record hit you with so much force, that you felt compelled to applaud the execution of it all, amazed at the mere fact that the band was able to pull off such a feat, but as great as it sounded, as supreme an exercise in technical proficiency as it was, it remained a cold, emotionless piece of work, the chilly precision of the music drowning out any sense of humanity whatsoever. Either you bought into it, or you tuned it out.
Five years later, the band have resurfaced with their long (and do I mean long) awaited new album, Miss Machine, and not only does the Dillinger Escape Plan prove that Calculating Infinity was no fluke, but more importantly, they add that much-needed, intangible quality that connects the listener to the music more easily, and in the process, brashly reaffirm their status as the foremost creators of heavy music in America today. When a band like the Dillinger Escape Plan is able to duplicate the intensity of the previous album, yet at the same time create music that actually possesses (gasp!) commercial appeal, daring to cause an uproar among dyed-in-the-wool hardcore fans, you know they’re on to something memorable.
To fully understand the progression of the band’s sound, you have to go back to the 2002 EP Irony is a Dead Scene, a one-off project recorded with guest vocalist Mike Patton (Faith No More, Tomahawk, Fantomas, overall renaissance dude), recorded following the departure of Minakakis. The versatility of Patton’s vocals lended a different, deeper quality to the Dillinger Escape Plan’s music, his phenomenal range allowing the rest of the band to start to play around with vocal melodies for the first time, and when it worked best, like on “When Good Dogs Do Bad Things”, the results were often spectacular. Singer Greg Puciato, who has now been in the band for more than two years, brings the same kind of vocal power to Miss Machine, and it’s his presence that pushes the album over the top. Possessing much greater vocal range than Minakakis did, Puciato proves he can scream as well as anyone, but then on a dime, he turns around and delivers melodic verses that sometimes possess the craziness of Patton, the sinister quality of Trent Reznor, and, believe it or not, even an unmistakable hint of Pulp’s Jarvis Cocker, circa This is Hardcore.
That’s not to say that the good old hardcore tunes aren’t there; hell, they dominate the record, in fact. Only here, you sense so the band’s increased confidence when playing such songs, as there’s less guitar noodling, less chaos for chaos’s sake, and more subtle experiments with song structures. On the searing “Panasonic Youth” and “Van Damsel”, the band delivers mosh-inducing, aggro anthems, led by guitarist Ben Weinman and Brian Benoit’s frenetic combination of rhythmic riffs and quick, Steve Vai-esque lead licks, and propelled by percussion phenom Chris Pennie, who changes time signatures in the blink of an eye. “We Are the Storm” is progressive metal of the highest order, while “Sunshine the Werewolf” hints at the stylistic changes to come, with its slow, monolithic middle section of roaring guitar harmonies and even a touch of strings, before returning to the insanity of the first two minutes.
There are moments on Miss Machine, though, that have that mainstream, TRL appeal, as every so often, the band chooses to ease up on the intricate arrangements, in favor of more atmospheric, textured sounds, letting the vocal melodies step to the forefront. “Highway Robbery” has a funkier, Anthrax feel to it, with Puciato adding a memorable, melodic chorus, and the menacing “Phone Home” is more of a Trent Reznor homage than a rip-off, as Puciato sneers over a surprisingly minimal, gloomy arrangement of bass and keyboards, “Just hold tight and tell another fucking joke to pacify the urge for suicide.” “Setting Fire to Sleeping Giants” is a terrific showcase for Puciato’s range and the guitar work of Weinman and Benoit, combining theatrical, sinister verses with blasts of rhythmic guitar screeches that echo Meshuggah’s classic “Future Breed Machine”, and a chorus so catchy, that it trumps every limp “screamo” song that has been recorded in the past two years. Most surprising is “Unretrofied”, a mainstream hit in the making, a blend of industrial gloom, some shamelessly emo melodies, and, from out of freakin’ nowhere, disco punk rhythms, as Puciato goes on to decry the mundane life of suburbia: “Time is wasted in the end/Wood paneled carpool dragons killing me again.” “Unretrofied” is not only a very cool respite from all the prog metal frenzy, but also a tune that just might break the band with its undeniable commercial potential, much like what Toxicity‘s singles did for System of a Down.
Over the course of 40 minutes, you’re inundated with a dizzying array of musical flourishes. It’s like watching Fourth of July fireworks; you’re dazzled one moment, only to be immediately blown away the next: a split-second jazz drum solo, a touch of majestic goth rock, strings that come in from out of nowhere, background harmony vocals, Meshuggah-style grinding and Helloween style staccato picking, touches of industrial, a weird blend of Frank Zappa and classic hardcore, a hint of new wave, psychotic thrash, a touch of dissonant Captain Beefheart harmonies, the album’s final, crashing, cacophonous conclusion.
Metal and punk fans are a notoriously stodgy bunch, many of whom usually do not react to change very well, but those admirers of Calculating Infinity who dare to slag this album are forgetting that the root word of “progressive” is “progress”. On Miss Machine, the Dillinger Escape Plan have let it be known to all that they are unwilling to let the rigid constraints of metal and punk pin them down, and consequently, they have managed to follow up a very good album with a truly great one.