[9 April 2014]
It’s typically right around a band’s fourth or fifth album that the innovation ceases, replaced by a sense of settling in. The identity is established, the fan base has peaked, and it’s time to carry on with a tried and true approach. Such is the place the Faint occupy now, as evidenced by Doom Abuse, the band’s seventh album. That it is their first album after a hiatus — previous record Fasciination released in 2008 — shines a brighter spotlight on the question of their continued relevance. The challenge they face at this point in their career, then, is whether or not it’s time for them to hang it up or if the work they’re putting out, if not breaking new ground, is at least competent and satisfies their audience. Fortunately, the record puts the band largely in the latter camp.
The Faint’s kitschy brand of retro dark wave/electro-meets-punk aesthetic has become a by-numbers affair, but Doom Abuse avoids wandering into self-parody or lazy territory (with the exception of “Lesson From the Darkness”). The group’s affinity for the darkness has always felt more of a stylistic device than a genuine expression of nihilistic turmoil, the commentary in the lyrics more tongue in cheek with the playfulness and vitriol tempering each other. Here, that sly element is embraced, and the tunes benefit from that, imbuing most of them with an unapologetic sense of fun. At times, when they veer too close into clichés, you wonder if this is itself not a deliberate and self-conscious slab of wry humor.
Opener “Help in the Head” is classic Faint, starting with a blast of feedback and some metal fretwork before a barrage of hammering drums and a vibrating bass kicks in. In his trademark nasally deadpan, Todd Fink sneers the earworm chorus “I said things / Yeah, I confess / I just meant you needed help in the head”, his snottiness and charisma befitting a cult leader in some blacklight-illuminated discotheque. It kicks things off right, the jittery, stimulant-addled vibe providing a charge to guide the rest of the record. Successor “Mental Radio” is built around a repetitive, rubbery bass line (think gothic surf rock) and sharp synth notes cutting through a haze of fuzz. It’s slower than its predecessor, and not as memorable, but the momentum is regained in “Evil Voices”, defined by a deep rumbling and askew rhythms that surge manically in the refrain. Amid a mad scientist’s tweaking on the synths, Fink’s phased voice chants “Evil voices lie when they say you’re alone”, another simple hook that won’t leave your head for some time once it burrows in.
With “Animal Needs” and “Dress Code”, the Faint break the pattern with some mockery of social conceits, but the degree of their effectiveness is negligible. The former is a droning, counterculture manifesto distilled to a litany of comforts and contrivances one doesn’t need. It becomes awkward in how over the top it gets, (really, you don’t need names, toilets, words?), but perhaps that is part of the commentary, criticizing both those who engage in excess and those who go the absurdly ascetic route. “Dress Code” features a robotic voice reciting yuppie accessories and apparel over a throbbing low end and vintage video game bleeps. There is a narrative progression, the list advancing from the heights of affluence to economic collapse to get across its point of the futility of materialism. Not a particularly novel idea, but the somewhat experimental delivery is worth a listen. Thing is, it’ll likely merit just the one listen.
The highest octane number of the bunch, “Scapegoat”, comes right after “Dress Code” and, from its position as the eighth track, it steadies the course for the last run of songs. The tune has the speed and venom of ‘70s punk, filtered through off-the-rails synths. It conjures imagery of the last punk band gleefully jerk-dancing on the ashes of a dystopian future. “You’re convinced that your right / But you’re not really right in the head”, Fink sings, referencing the album’s first cut. Good as some of these songs on the second half are, they come close to redundant, narrowly avoiding this pitfall by ending on a strong note with “Damage Control”. Slowed to a sultry groove, it is an atmospheric piece, sensitive and pathos-evoking. The fuzz undulates and a melodious keyboard pattern repeats throughout, the song ending on Fink uttering some murky spoken-word regret over and over: “Last night, the worst things / I said a million things I shouldn’t have said”.
In the end, there isn’t much on Doom Abuse to surprise or expand the Faint’s audience. At the same time, it should appease those already devoted. Does it measure up to their greatest moments or delve into new terrain? Not at all. But if the Faint’s goal was to have fun and make a good Faint-sounding record, then mission accomplished.