The press release accompanying Dinowalrus’s debut album drops references to post-apocalyptic science fiction, murderous biker gangs, analogue synths, and classic garage rock. While all of those unimpeachably cool elements do emerge in the group’s sound, the principal image that % conjures up is of a very patient girlfriend who presumably pays the rent and buys groceries. This band will never, ever be profitable. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing on its own; lots of great music has come from following an idiosyncratic muse. But by pursuing their uncompromising and brash vision, Dinowalrus have created an album that is nearly impossible not to admire but equally difficult to like.
A large part of this difficulty is due to the vocals. The closest reference point for the singing on % would be the processed, feral yelping present on most Lightning Bolt records. It’s not quite visceral enough to provide the sense of immediacy or catharsis that you get from punk or metal screamers, and conventional evaluators like pitch or timbre are completely irrelevant. By making the most human element of any band so abrasive and remote, Dinowalrus effectively keep their audience at arm’s length. The band would probably be proud of having offended my uptight, bourgeois sensibilities, except that I also like David Yow and modern Scott Walker. I’m prepared to forgive a lot, and these vocals are just annoying. The singing is going to be a deal-breaker for all but the most devoted and forgiving weirdoes.
This is too bad, because the number of good ideas going on in the background ought to earn them some more fans. Take the catalog of Liars — a similar band in many respects — and compress their discography down into one record, so that the amped-up funkiness of They Threw Us All in a Trench and Stuck a Monument on Top sits next to the murky art experiments of Drum’s Not Dead. Nearly every song here has a number of really cool sonic ideas or arrangement touches that make it worthwhile. The combination of wah guitar and ambient synthesizers makes “Electric Car, Gas Guitar” sound like the Stooges playing underwater. “I Hate Numbers” features some gnarly rockabilly riffs and well placed double-time rave-ups alongside the splattering drum machines and low-end buzzing.
The record’s indisputable highlight is “Haze on the Mobius Strip”. The liner notes assign credit (or blame) for the vocals to all three band members, but whoever sings on this one ought to take the lead more often. Here, the sleepy, echoing vocals on this song don’t detract from the fascinating sonic backdrop. It’s driven by a clean guitar riff that’s equal parts ’80s jangle-pop and Sonic Youth circa Bad Moon Rising. Great fuzzy washes of keyboards and distorted guitar crowd in from all sides as a simple but effectively propulsive drum part provides a solid anchor. The result sounds kind of a lo-fi, garagey version of My Bloody Valentine. Hearing this, it’s hard not to imagine what this record could have been — the best of all possible Dinowalruses, so to speak — which makes the return of obnoxious bleating on subsequent tracks all the more disappointing.
Dinowalrus occupy a strange middle ground where they’re a little too boisterous and scruffy to be irretrievably pretentious, but too arty and difficult to actually be accessible. They have about as much raw potential of any new band that has emerged in a while, but it’s very, very raw. Perhaps one day they’ll produce a masterpiece, but in the meantime, % is only for the most curious and insatiable of rock fans.