[15 November 2007]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
The Dillinger Escape Plan might have helped turn metal/hardcore on its ear with the influential 1999 release Calculating Infinity, spawning a slew of imitators from Daughters to the End. But while musicians and fans continued to marvel at the record’s innumerable riffs, crazy time signatures, and solos, to their credit, the boys in The Dillinger Escape Plan were bent on broadening their sound. While many extreme metal fans like to praise the technical dexterity required of the sound, to convince all of them to embrace a gradual turn towards more accessible fare is a very tall order. Over the past five years, this band has continually thrown down the gauntlet to its fans, challenging them to accept the startling changes the artists had in store.
As time has gone on, the more and more bold The Dillinger Escape Plan has gotten. The 2002 EP Irony is a Dead Scene featured the vocal skills of Mike Patton and a cover of Aphex Twin’s “Come to Daddy”. The 2004 tour de force Miss Machine equaled the controlled chaos of Calculating Infinity, but swiftly pulled the rug out from under everyone with the streamlined, melodic “Unretrofied”. Last year saw the band audaciously and without irony cover Justin Timberlake’s “Like I Love You” for the Plagiarism EP. While all those moments were impressive displays of stylistic range, it was high time the band stopped dabbling and focused exclusively on that eccentricity, which was quickly becoming its strength, and the astonishing Ire Works has them doing just that, with incredible results.
It’s actually a wonder that this album got made at all. The band already had a reputation for going through musicians, for often bizarre reasons (such as Brian Benoit’s development of brachial plexus neuritis, resulting in severe nerve damage in his left hand). But the situation became surreal earlier this year when longtime drummer Chris Pennie abruptly left the band to drum for Coheed and Cambria, mere days before recording was set to commence. Guitarist Ben Weinman, now the sole remaining original member, was undeterred, though, eventually hiring talented percussionist Gil Sharone (of Los Angeles avant-garde outfit Stolen Babies) at the last minute. With the rest of the guys on board, including vocalist Greg Puciato and bassist Liam Wilson, Weinman managed to not only buckle down and emerge unscathed, but completely outdo anything The Dillinger Escape Plan had ever done before.
First off, there’s no need for fussy tech metal fans to get all up in arms, as the band’s classic “mathcore” sound is still present. Only this time, those more aggressive, technically flashy displays of chops are dwarfed by the real surprises. They almost serve as overtures and interludes before and in between the more daring moments, never lasting more than a couple minutes per track. The songs that are there, however, are outstanding. Sharone proves his worth immediately on unrelenting tracks like “Fix Your Face”, “Lurch”, “82588”, and “Party Smasher”, providing a concrete-solid foundation for Weinman’s and Wilson’s myriad jazzy movements and hardcore tangents. In fact, it’s almost as if Sharone is telling fans that this kind of Pennie-like paradiddling can be done in his sleep, because the real strength of his drumming, and the entire album, is his strong sense of groove, which becomes more prominent the further into Ire Works we go.
Using “Unretrofied” as a jumping-off point, the band delivers several key tracks that signal a sudden, jarring turn toward left field that nobody could have predicted. Single in the making “Black Bubblegum” is just what the title indicates, a dark slice of unadulterated pop in the vein of Faith No More circa 1992. Shamelessly celebrating the pure fun of a great vocal hook, Puciato turns in a superb performance, alternating from a wry howl to a catchy falsetto, as Sharone smoothly guides the song toward its Patton-inspired chorus with synths and programmed beats adding a contagious dance element. Later on, “Milk Lizard” takes everything one-step further. Sounding at first like the Jesus Lizard backed up by Motown horns, Puciatio yowls away over a rampaging backbeat and almost boogie-inspired guitar riff, the trumpets punctuating his lines with swaggering fills, before segueing neatly into a gorgeous coda led by Weinman’s piano melody.
But wait, it gets even nuttier. “Sick on Sunday” immediately explodes with a burst of frenzied IDM beats over Weinman’s speedy fretwork, as if Aphex Twin or Squarepusher is sitting in with the band, immediately leading into the dark, strings-enhanced ambient excursion “When Acting as a Particle”. Glitchy stutters and swooping synth tones do battle with the band’s wonky funk on the instrumental “When Acting as a Wave”. The brooding “Dead as History” combines that electronic influence with more of Puciato’s strong Patton homages. The album comes to an astounding conclusion, first with “Horse Hunter”, which kicks into classic The Dillinger Escape Plan mathletics, but quickly sheds it for Zappa-inspired noodling, more of that ferocious groove, swirling space rock synths, and an effective guest vocal turn by Mastodon’s Brent Hinds. The moody “Mouth of Ghosts”, though, has the entire band laying all its cards on the table. Weinman leads the foursome in a defiantly mellow jazz piano direction for four minutes before the guitars enter the fray one last time, the song cruising to a surprisingly stately, almost theatrical conclusion.
It’s clear that The Dillinger Escape Plan is finished with daring its mathcore-obsessed detractors to accept their increasingly eclectic musical direction. By now, you’re either with them or you’re not. Those who continue to cry, “sellout!” can go listen to Psyopus wank away. The rest of us will continue to drink in the boldest, most thrilling album of this supremely talented band’s career.