If Villainaire were only an instrumental album from start to finish, then the Dead Science might have something. Their gritty combination of post-punk energy and stringed arrangements can be jarring and angry, or more tempered and sad. They are a band that can combine disparate elements well, and use noisy and clunky transitions to their benefit, signaling a blatant shift in emotion through subtle sonic choices.
Here, they mesh dreamy harp strings into a thumping and grinding rhythm section on “Throne of Blood (The Jump Off)”. A spare electronic beat gives way to thrashing guitar rock on “Wife You”. The folk balladry of “Black Lane” is brought to full-fledged life with a soaring burst of strings. The plucked minor notes on “Make Mine Marvel” are cut loose and shift from brooding to shouting by a quick-stroke post-punk guitar riff.
All of those moments could make Villainaire a surprising and entertaining record. And they are not even the only highlights musically. Unfortunately, almost every song is undone by the vocals. For years, the Dead Science have been crafting this sort of dark and overly dramatic rock music, that toes the line between being emotion and being whiny, between being smart and being too high-minded. But some of those records worked. And maybe it is just that things haven’t changed enough this time around, but Villainaire misses the mark nearly all the way through.
Sam Mickens’ vocals go back and forth between warbly melodramatics and creepy whispers. And while either of those, used in moderation, could make for a charming quirk on the album, neither can be relied on as a primary tool. Couple his over-the-top vocals with his knack for antiquated syntax — “leave nothing attached, nor nothing behind” he sings on “The Dancing Destroyer” — and the fact that every moment he sings about is to the nth degree, and you’ve got a group of songs that wear on you quickly. There are no dark nights in these songs, only the darkest night. There are plenty of references to hearts and blood and death, most of which hint at a vague and undefined dread that becomes no clearer as the album moves along.
Mickens also refuses to use any sort of vocal melodies on the record. Over these tight compositions, he meanders and wails aimlessly so much that his tales of woe become impossible to follow. There is some notion on the record of a battle — Mickens often sings of “us”, with an implied “them” on the receiving end of his tantrums — but we’re never quite sure what the struggle actually is. The album’s title implies a class war, but the Dead Science hardly seem to be playing the music of the people here, and Mickens doesn’t seem interesting in singing to galvanize anyone, preferring instead to maybe confuse us into a response.
It really is too bad that Villainaire doesn’t work. Sonically, it is exciting throughout, capable of surprisingly subtlety and, when necessary, brash and in-your-face theatrics. But the overdone vocals, the pretentious lyrics, and the constant insistence that not only is something horribly wrong but the band seems to be the only one that knows it doesn’t just stop the album in its tracks, it knocks it backwards.