Black Dice’s newest album sees them treading the line between noise and pop without conclusively choosing either.
Black Dice isn’t exactly a band that you decide to listen to on a whim. Their sound is often described as “difficult” and “unique”, which is just music critic talk for saying that it’s just plain bizarre. With their newest release, Mr. Impossible, they’ve become even more opaque, despite tracks being neatly organized into short songs with motifs and patterns modeled after pop. Of course, when your motifs are bursts of noise and obscure samples, all notions of pop music are thrown out the window. But Black Dice doesn’t and never has worked to create Top 40 hits; instead, their noise-rock leanings have left them willfully in the background of today’s indie scene, despite having influenced prominent groups like Animal Collective and No Age. Unfortunately for Black Dice, the bands that they’ve influenced have done much more with their sound than they ever have. Mr. Impossible finds the band taking a small step into accessibility, but a step back in terms of development.
Perhaps because of the complex layers that Black Dice have created in their songs, they could never be described as boring. They’ve never been the easiest band to listen to, but they’ve always produced records with at least bits of genius. On Mr. Impossible, we see fewer of these layers as Black Dice go back to basics, with mainly just playing with different rhythms. The strange musique concrete and ambient combination that was present on debut record Beaches & Canyons is gone; likewise the unhinged dance rhythms from parts of Repo have taken a backseat on Mr. Impossible, in favor of basic noise loops and drummed rhythms. Unfortunately, this greatly limits the band's ability -- most tracks are indistinguishable and, worse, bland with repetition. It’s problematic that a record with so many eclectic sounds and influences can wear on a listener so easily, but the sparks of creativity from their earlier works just aren’t present on Mr. Impossible. Black Dice have always tried to shock the listener and surprise them when they least expect it. Here, they take too much of an organized role. Unlike most artists, Black Dice create their best music when wild and jumbled, creating varied soundscapes and noises. Without this chaos, there is little to keep the listener interested.
That isn’t to say the whole album is awful. It seems that Black Dice have gone as far as they wanted with being difficult. On their most pop-based record, two tracks especially stand out: “Pigs” and “Spy Vs. Spy”. “Pigs” sounds like a deconstructed industrial take on Black Sabbath’s classic “War Pigs”, with heavy riffs and frantic incoherent voices; “Spy Vs. Spy” on the other hand is twisted spy film theme. Both of these tracks work to the band’s strength of twisting simple themes into their own style; unsurprisingly, they’re also two of the “poppiest” moments on the record.
The biggest problem with Mr. Impossible is that ideas aren’t fleshed out, despite the length of many tracks. When this happens, repetition of themes doesn’t reinforce the music, but instead makes it dull and lifeless. The soul that was present on Beaches & Canyons is hard to find on Mr. Impossible. But stripping down their music to basics, Black Dice have lost the soul in their music. The neatly-defined order of the motifs and disorder of the noise together create a surprisingly tedious album.
In a way, it seems like Black Dice are at a crossroad between noise and pop. Many of their contemporaries have chosen the pop route, which Black Dice also seem to be going down. If so, then they themselves might want to take a lesson from their contemporaries and incorporate more a sense of melody in their music; their own advancement is blocked by their own unwillingness to conform. When they do so, the results are great. For Black Dice, conformity may just produce a more accessible and better record. It is only when they decide to choose neither noise nor pop that their music lags.