(Paw Tracks; 2009)
By David Abravanel | 10 April 2009
As a lover of experimental compositions and sounds, it puts me in an odd position to feel as though it’s in a band’s best interest to migrate more toward accessibility. Plenty of fantastic artists have jettisoned their bite for more traditional songcraft as careers progressed. It often ends with an album too relaxed to be weird, and too weird to be approached conventionally, stuck in a kind of limbo where breaking the rules feels more obligatory than original.
Repo is one of those albums; if Broken Ear Record (2005) stands as the closest Black Dice ever came to being a rock band, then Repo is their middle ground, their At War With The Mystics (2007). It is ridden with tracks that sound purposefully aimless. “La Cucaracha,” the biggest endurance test on the record, is an overcooked soufflé of scattered percussion, shouts, and synth revs, all frustratingly refusing to coalesce into something more than a curio. There are some intriguing sounds, sure, but Black Dice have that for miles. The problem with a track like “La Cucaracha” is that it feels like it needs to go somewhere that it isn’t.
As for what kind of accessibility would actually benefit Black Dice, sticking to one time signature (with no oddly placed off-time measures) has resulted in some of their most engaging and lasting work—including breakthrough single “Cone Toaster” and the best tracks, like “Drool,” from 2007’s fantastic Load Blown. Abandoning traditionally Western conceptions of rhythm isn’t a bad idea for a challenge, but nor is it a new or radical statement in 2009, nearly a century since the advent of the first “Noise Music.” I don’t mean to suggest that Black Dice make things more experimental for shits and giggles, but rather that, next to enveloping epics like “Endless Happiness” (from 2002’s Beaches and Canyons) or the mighty “Skeleton” (from 2003’s Creature Comforts), the little screwball pieces on Repo sound more like a diversion than a progression. Ultimately, it’s these tracks that prevent Repo from reaching the same heights of consistency as the previous two Black Dice albums. Representative of the all-on media assault that is modern living, pastiches like “Whirligig” and “Buddy” are somewhat interesting but also end up feeling like dead weight.
This isn’t a record without its moments, though; if the focus of this review has been on criticism of weak tracks, it’s more because there isn’t much new to say about what does work here. “Chicken Shit” is a piercing intersection between repetitive guitar drone and hi-pitched, effects-laden squeals, climaxing with a head banging bass drum beat. Less works as more with “Vegetable,” consisting mostly of an acoustic guitar and its playful effect feeds. And “Glazin” is the kind of irresistible, hot-shit nightmare dub that comes best from Black Dice and contemporaries Excepter.
Black Dice are still very much a band worth following, and the concepts behind Repo are, at the very least, attractive. Revising my original suggestion of accessibility, I’d say that what works better with Black Dice are aural and compositional extremes—either a tight-ish rhythm lock or a fifteen-minute orgasm of instrumental overload. Perhaps there will come a moment when Repo suddenly clicks as a beautifully connected opus, but that seems doubtful; for the time being it’s just a frustrating listen, held back by its unnecessarily unconventional explorations.