Family Dynamics
Photo: Gisel X Florez

Family Dynamics Release Their Long-Lost Album in Physical Form

The sole release from the experimental collective Family Dynamics gets the long-awaited vinyl treatment, and it’s an exquisite, impossible-to-classify gem.

Family Dynamics
Whatever's Clever
20 October 2023

Family Dynamics are a band that (briefly) created unusual, compelling music that happens to be accompanied by a unique, compelling backstory and, in 2023, an even more unusual second life. More than a decade ago, the acclaimed music collective Stars Like Fleas broke up during a European tour, and when they returned to the US, some members weren’t ready to call it quits. So four of them created Family Dynamics, toured for a little more than a year, and recorded one album, Service, that eventually appeared briefly in digital form on Bandcamp before multi-instrumentalist and producer Shannon Fields took it down, and the four slowly went their separate ways. 

“We had big plans, but I think the trauma of Stars Like Fleas’ tumultuous history started to silently bleed into the spaces around us the longer we kept it going,” explained Fields in Service‘s press notes. “Without really breaking up or talking about it, we all just started focusing on other projects with less baggage.” Fields, for instance, went on to form Leverage Models and produced records for other artists as well. Fast forward several years later: Benedict Kupstas (Field Guides) and Dave Scanlon (JOBS), both Family Dynamics fans and Fields’ labelmates on the indie imprint Whatever’s Clever, convinced Fields to give Service a proper vinyl reissue. 

Fields’ Family Dynamics bandmates include Ryan Sawyer on vocals, drums, percussion, acoustic guitar, and melodica; Laura Ortman on vocals, electric and acoustic guitar, violin, sampler, and piano; and Shelley Burgon on vocals, harp, sound design, keyboards, and acoustic and electric baritone guitar. It would be inaccurate for the listener to refer to Service as a trip back in time to 2010-2012, when the group existed, since the album’s sonic makeup is so unusual and eclectic that it feels unmoored from a specific era. Classifying the seven gorgeous, otherworldly tracks is pointless; they appear to have created their own genre.

“We wanted our shows to feel like a community choir gathering,” Fields explained. “Unpretentious but mysterious and confusing and embarrassing, inviting, raw and primitive, but avoiding Americana and all the related musical cliches.” Service is devoid of anything resembling a cliche. The opening track, “Questions (Invocation)”, certainly has the feel of a community choir gathering, a simmering, folky, atonal hymn that’s both mysterious and weirdly inviting. If the rest of the LP continued in that same vein, it would probably sound like an unvarnished Fleet Foxes archival release, but luckily for us, this foursome is in a constant state of stylistic shift. 

“Safe Operations” uses an insistent, loping beat to carry its doomy synths and gentle propulsion. There’s a subtle, backlit gothic vibe that retains an insistent air of mystery, but the well-versed musical interplay between the foursome (aided in part on this track by Matt Lavelle on bass clarinet) is palpable and sympathetic. Again, there’s no specific style or musical era pinned to these songs, giving them a timeless and unconstrained quality by genre. Along the same lines, but in a more diaphanous manner, “Faenza” recalls the epic, slow tempos and quasi-progressive rock that Mono have been mining for years. Still, Family Dynamics make it their own, stopping on occasion for gauzy, choral episodes and sprinkled bits of synths and acoustic guitar strumming. 

Fields and his bandmates are students of early indie and college rock, as “Downstream” indicates, mixing tuneful hooks with layered production and random, opaque trips along London clubs of the 1980s. The throbbing, reverberating beats bring to mind late nights and sweaty dance floors, but never in an overly nostalgic manner. The influences are carefully assembled, but Family Dynamics make the sounds their own. In “Rushing Down”, it’s almost as if another band has taken over, with burbling synths overtaken by dreamy vocalizing as if Kate Bush briefly joined Tangerine Dream.  

But for every foray into a more sophisticated, complex form of dance music, Service is happy to work along more experimental lanes. “Shimasani” takes on a rudderless path that veers toward an almost new-age feel before the song’s final movement takes on a slow, steady, intoxicating tempo. 

Service concludes with the gentle, emotional pull of “Punchline”, with acoustic guitars and brushed drums ushering in some of the album’s quietest moments before horn samples lead to a quiet coda of noise before brief, jazzy piano notes and what sounds like detached bits of harmonium close the door on this disarming bit of lost musical curiosities. 

Many different artists, most of them thriving in past decades, have been namechecked here as attempts have been made to classify Family Dynamics and their odd, deeply enchanting sole release. This doesn’t indicate that Family Dynamics are a band of musical copycats, far from it. Like anyone else, their sound is a mix of disparate influences; the key to their artistic success, as brief and fleeting as it was, happens to be the way that they coordinated and arranged these influences into a truly magical, one-of-a-kind release, now widely available more than ten years later. Service is a beautiful, unique collection, an exceptional musical snapshot that deserves to be heard, treasured, and shared widely. 

RATING 8 / 10