The most versatile instrument known to us surely must be the human voice. Whether the voice is in singing or speaking mode — or somewhere on the spectrum between those two modes — it can mimic the sounds of animals, of instruments, and of course, those of other human voices.
Rock music, of course, has an eternally elastic policy about vocals. (Some musicians, like Mark E. Smith of the Fall, would say that rock is not technically even music. I would say that rock is a captivating degradation of music — but it’s still music.) In rock music, of crucial importance is how seamlessly the vocals weave into the sonic textures. If the music is solid but the vocals don’t carry it, the song risks polarizing audiences.
Fontaines D.C. might be one of those bands that can cause such schisms with audiences. The vocals on their debut album, Dogrel, are so loomingly loud that they practically eclipse the other instruments. Furthermore, the vocals are megaphonic, more shouty than croony. Indeed, Fontaines D.C. is spoken-word, white-boy rap at its most vociferous and off-kilter.
Fontaines D.C. has been described by some music critics and listeners as a melding of Joy Division and The Fall — the former for its aggressive energy and sharp musical contours and the latter for the baritone bellow that erupts from the lungs of its dreamy singer, though Chatten’s vocal delivery is not quite as bitingly deadpan as Mark E. Smith’s. Still, a sardonic atmosphere suffuses Chatten’s singing, which is also tinged with a bitter urgency.
Once you acclimate to the prominence of the brogue-soaked vocals on this album, you begin to notice the cyclonic guitars, thick thumping bass lines that call to mind The Cure’s early ponderous tunes and booming marching band drums. The music veers between the rustic crunch of garage rock and spikily buoyant post-punk, with doses of that perky ’90s “strummy indie” vibe for good measure.
Lyrically, Fontaines D.C. offer Beatnik flows flavored with traditional Irish poetry overtones, encapsulating themes of disenchantment with the modern world. The juggernaut forces of gentrification have run rampant over every major city on the planet, and how that venomously affects Dublin is a particular focus with this band. Indeed, Dublin and its landmarks and environs are name-checked at nearly every turn of phrase. Dogrel may be the most Dublin-centric album in popular rock history.
Not infrequently, the thick Dublin accent potently delivered by Chatten can further obscure already hard-to-penetrate lyrics for some ears, but this also renders them more cryptically interesting. A meticulous reading of the lyrics becomes mandatory, and worth your time.
In general, the album does not waver from its mercurial momentum, but there are three interludes that showcase the more melodic mode of Fontaines D.C. These songs are awkwardly out of place on first exposure, but repeated listens reveals them to be poignant respites from the “hurricane laughter” attitude pervading the album.
When Johnny Rotten shuffled off his ’70s primal punk persona and embraced a loftier approach to music, he used his vocals to staggering effect, stretching them toward an all-encompassing banshee shriek. His voice became the domineering instrument in the tumult of noise emanating from Public Image Ltd.
Much like Public Image Ltd with Johnny Rotten, Fontaines D.C. exploitation of Chatten’s commanding vocals is a clever move. His voice mesmerizes in a way that enables us to appreciate the deeper dimension of the sounds and themes.
Post-punk has new blood coursing through its veins, transcendently authentic, and boisterously good. You’ll want to give Dogrel a listen.