[30 March 2010]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
When the Dillinger Escape Plan abruptly left their longtime home Relapse Records and signed a deal with Europe-based label Season of Mist in May of 2009, it caught many off-guard, but it was impossible to ignore the new partnership’s enormous potential. After all, on one side you have one of the most daring, innovative acts in extreme music today, coming off three consecutive landmark full-length albums: 1999’s Calculating Infinity, 2004’s Miss Machine, and 2007’s Ire Works. On the other is a cutting-edge record label with very good worldwide distribution that boasts an impressive roster of diverse yet equally adventurous bands, including Cynic, Drudkh, Rotting Christ, the Gathering, and Psykup. It’s a perfect match, and with the guarantee that Dillinger would be given as much creative freedom as any band could wish to have, fans had every right to be optimistic about album number four.
Two and a half years after the crazed eclecticism and tension-filled Ire Works we get the interestingly titled Option Paralysis, so named after one of the many clever neologisms coined by Douglas Coupland in his great novel Generation X, meaning, “The tendency, when given unlimited choices, to make none.” Interesting, because hearing this album, it’s astounding just how safe it feels compared to anything they’ve done before. Arriving in the wake of the groundbreaking mathcore of Calculating Infinity, the melodic experiments of Miss Machine (and the preceding EP Irony Is a Dead Scene), and the audacity of Ire Works, Option Paralysis isn’t the sound of a band continuing to try to forge new territory, so much as simply refining the sound and style they had spent the better part of the last decade creating.
For a band that relies so heavily on that aforementioned tension on record, and projects it live better than anyone, the new album feels downright comfortable at times. All of the experimentation that made Ire Works so thrilling and polarizing (the demented pop of “Black Bubblegum”, the horn-driven “Milk Lizard”, the electronic touches of “Sick on Sunday”, the proggy “Horse Hunter”) have been set aside. Instead they simply focus more on the give and take between the abrasive skronk of guitarist/founding member Ben Weinman and the ever-improving range and discipline of vocalist Greg Puciato. As a result of exploring their music in a much subtler fashion than they ever have in the past, Option Paralysis does have a strong whiff of predictability to it.
For the first time, we can sense what’s going to happen in most tracks well in advance: taut, hyper-technical riffs and cadences, intensely screamed verses, and the eventual soaring melodic chorus delivered at half-speed. Thankfully, Dillinger is terrific at that Jekyll-and-Hyde formula. Six years after the daring “Unretrofied” turned heads on Miss Machine, the band pulls it off now with the confidence of seasoned pros. “Gold Teeth on a Bum” is in full Mr. Bungle mode, creeping along eerily as Puciato leads the chorus in his typically Mike Patton-esque croon. “Endless Endings” expertly alternates between ferocious intricacy and cleverly-timed melodies. The album’s best track, “Farewell, Mona Lisa”, is one of Dillinger’s finest compositions to date. The entire band tinkers with dynamics and meshes their trademark reined-in chaos with Puciato’s understated moments so well that it feels effortless.
Elsewhere, we get the usual short, two minute bursts of mathcore (“Good Neighbor”, “Crystal Morning”), very well executed but certainly nothing we haven’t heard many times before. The moody “Widower” is a well-timed breather, a lengthy piano-driven composition that puts Puciato front and center. The trip-hop beat, keyboards, and clattering atmospherics of the album’s final track “Parasitic Twins” comes perilously close to nicking Nine Inch Nails in too obvious a fashion.
Although it doesn’t pack any real surprises, this album marks a fascinating turning point for the band. Option Paralysis is a very good album, by no means a failure, but because the band had set the bar so high for themselves with their previous three albums, it still feels like a slight step below. Unlike the turmoil and stress that fueled Ire Works, unquestionably one of the best metal albums of the last 10 years, the Dillinger Escape Plan is in a much happier mindset now, which has resulted in a confident, expertly crafted new record. Still, as much as we all want to be happy, the last thing this band needs to be is complacent, and we can only hope that the undeniable edge that Dillinger has possessed for so long isn’t starting to dull.