The rise of DFA Records has been an inspiringly unlikely success. While their cultivation of transcendent hipster status earned them advantageous affiliations with Astralwerks and EMI, the label remains defiantly incongruous. Even as they carry on the tradition of accessibly dance floor friendly singles that established them, they continue to invest in unusual artists who might otherwise go unnoticed. LCD Soundsystem’s liberal appropriations of rock and dance are affable enough, but The Juan Maclean’s frigid robot funk is considerably less congenial. The giddy jittering and scattershot throb of Black Dice is even more imposing although they compensate for an apparent lack of structure with infectious energy. Rejecting their respective labelmates’ liveliness, momentum, or avidity, Delia Gonzalez & Gavin Russom stand as the most leftfield manifestation of the DFA Records aesthetic. Weighing in at four songs over 50 minutes without a single snare or kick drum, their debut The Days of Mars is a formidable slab of subtly shifting tones and textures.
Other DFA artists may aim right at your ass, but Gonzalez and Russom do something much more audaciously cerebral. Outwardly obtuse, their songs all plod along to repetitious pulsations of alternately swirling and stabbing synths. Underneath that sonic onslaught is a surprising degree of intricate interaction. The years of artistic collaboration between both members are audible as they intuitively snake and slide around one another through every movement.
All captured live to tape with no subsequent overdubbing, this dynamic interplay is engrossing enough to merit interest over every expansive track. Drifting in on a vaporous haze of ambient drones, “13 Moons” simmers into a simple melody before ushering in waves of electronic flourish. Driving on into increasing density, this swarm of sweeping sound dissipates back into a melodic theme and then fades away. Alternately “Revelee” is relentless throughout its duration. Still far from overt, the track suggests a bracing intensity with its insistent propulsion. Twisting and turning its melody into various inversions, “Black Spring” is just as contemplative and as it is compelling. “Rise” spends three minutes indulging in its namesake before building up to a steady stride. Once established, that readily discernable pulse pushes onward as Gonzalez and Russom feed off and into one another filtering their way into expanding sonic palettes. Spectral and cinematic, these songs simultaneously induce introspection and imagination.
That characteristic betrays both strength and shortcoming. That The Days of Mars can get a person so caught up in their own head or have them inserting themselves into some sort of sci-fi fantasy film is impressive but the album is just as easily forgotten about and ignored. There may be a lot going on in these songs well worth paying attention to but they really require a dedicated level of focus. Left unattended, these ruminative works quickly retreat inobtrusively into the background.
Such a meditative effort may surprise DFA fans already familiar with the duo from their initial 12” and subsequent compilation appearances. Appearing as a b-side to the “El Monte” single, the DFA remix of “Rise” suggested something more infectiously funky than their monolithic debut. Looking at the label holistically makes some sense out of this discrepancy. The baffling success of DFA Records is a series of aggressively ingratiating singles followed up by edgier LPs that allow their artists to experiment and explore. The Rapture never came close to approaching the impossibly perfect “House of Jealous Lovers” anywhere on else on Echoes. LCD Soundsystem’s debut is an impressively informed and intelligent record but still can’t touch the strident brilliance of “Losing My Edge” or “Beat Connection”. The “Cone Toaster” 12” is as accessible as Black Dice is ever going to get and The Juan Maclean proves most potent in condensed doses. That Gonzalez and Russom don’t deliver anything at all like that first beat-driven b-side then becomes that much less confounding.
As mundane as DFA’s single-driven success may seem, what’s so stunning is that they’ve parlayed their gains into risks on increasingly adventurous artists like Gonzalez and Russom. Investing in something that sounds like an amped-up version of Tangerine Dream is a bold move on the part of any label and that The Days of Mars has an EMI logo on its spine is a testament to the uncanny achievement of DFA Records.
Commendable as this commitment to artistry may be, Gonzalez and Russom will surely be received by a very limited audience. The Days of Mars is an incredibly unconventional record and even as good as it is, I can’t quite recommend it to anyone who isn’t already predisposed to an affinity for avant-garde electronic music. Those who are already there though will surely find a lot to enjoy over the duration of this impressively intricate and idiosyncratic debut.