Like many emo/post-hardcore acts, Californian quintet Dance Gavin Dance—which formed in 2005—is inherently an acquired taste due to its drastic fusions of alarmingly hostile centers with invitingly emotive choruses and soaring instrumentation. Few other genres blend such polarized extremes, yet there’s always something alluring and admirable about the sheer skill the band shows in balancing these personas. Thankfully, that remains true on Artificial Selection, the group’s eighth studio album. While it can be a bit too abrasive and repetitive sometimes, there’s still a lot to like and commend about the collection’s catchy hooks, refreshing aggression, and subtle yet significant stylistic amalgamations.
Billed as their “strongest and most wondrously diverse showcase yet”, Artificial Selection once again finds vocalists Tilian Pearson and co-founder Jon Mess counterbalancing each other well with their raspy vulnerability and guttural outrage, respectively. Likewise, self-imposed allusions to Thursday, Taking Back Sunday, Coheed and Cambria, and The Mars Volta remain apt (although TMV precursor At the Drive-In might be a more fitting connection). In addition to the main line-up—which is completed by guitarist Will Swan, bassist Tim Feerick, and percussionist Matthew Mingus—the LP features several guest guitarists (including Zachary Garren of Strawberry Girls and Martin Bianchini of SECRETBAND), as well as flutist Jessica Esposito and former singer Kurt Travis. Together, they ensure that Artificial Selection is effectively vivacious, layered, and riveting from start to finish.
The Dance Gavin Dance discography is filled with robots, and that continues with opener “Son of Robot”, an initially sorrowful track whose starry guitar lines and beautiful supporting flute soon give way to a gut-punch shift into frenzied music and screaming. Love it or hate it, you have to respect such a twist, especially since it then leads to an affective core that fuses the fury of Circa Survive with the romantic pangs of Andrew McMahon (if sung by the late Chester Bennington). It’s divergences and evocations like these that make Dance Gavin Dance noteworthy in general, so “Son of Robot” is a great introduction to both the sequence and the group.
Naturally, several subsequent highlights appear as well. In particular, “Suspended in This Disaster” shines with its creative guitar work and vocal layers, while follow-up “Care” recalls the danceable funk of Bruno Mars and Kindo before “Count Bassy” expertly matches Mess’ brutality with the dense and sleek pop heart of Closure in Moscow. Of course, “Shelf Life” is a standout track because of the heartrending warmth Travis brings (as well as the equally mesmerizing arpeggios and rhythms), whereas “Gospel Burnout” nails its merger of foreboding riffs, prog rock intricacy, and shimmering emo verses. As for closer “Evaporated”, it’s arguably the gem of the set simply for referencing so many prior DGD compositions—with help from guest guitarist/vocalist Andrew Wells—in the midst of a truly multifaceted and unpredictable five-minute journey.
As consistently striving and enjoyable as the album is, newcomers may find it overwhelmingly harsh and tedious if taken all at once. That is due mostly to Mess’ shouts (obviously), but also because of how similar some of the songs can sound both structurally and texturally. That said, those issues will likely only bother listeners who are unaccustomed to the Dance Gavin Dance method, and even the record’s most off-putting moments are almost always counteracted with remarkable musicianship and adventurous dynamics.
Artificial Selection is a fine addition to not only the Dance Gavin Dance catalog but the entire stylistic landscape to which it belongs. While connections to other artists are clear, the quintet continues to maintain a distinctive, exploratory, and skillful identity in comparison to some equally popular peers. Granted, that formula is undeniably polarizing, but even those who don’t like it on a personal level have to acknowledge that the band remains among the best at what they do in terms of pure technicality, songwriting, and experimentation/variety.