Dance Gavin Dance - Downtown Battle Mountain II
Record Label: Rise
Release Date: 8 March, 2011
Dance Gavin Dance have been through many members changes, but the fact that they still persevere and continue to write music is admirable. With Kurt Travis gone, Jonny Craig, Jon Mess, and Eric Lodge return to form this new and improved lineup, alongside Will Swan and Matt Mingus. Mess's vocal ability has progressed, becoming less distorted and verbally ambiguous, all the while retaining his trademark shout. Swan successfully integrates aspects of all this group's past work, while still creating an innovative and new experience, throwing in tempo and key signature changes to keep things technical, but overall making their music more approachable. That being said, the band seem to have rushed or gotten lazy with their writing in some aspects. To many fans' dismay, Craig has become relatively comfortable in a lower range, in comparison to the original Downtown Battle Mountain, where he belted most of his lyrics, which have now disintegrated into shallow, mindless text. Despite Mingus's drumming expertise, he relies far too heavily on unembellished beats and kick drum patterns than the exploratory fills and unconventional sequences that I had grown to love, although this may have been deliberate. Regardless of its flaws, Downtown Battle Mountain II is certainly an exceptional record. Being a longtime fan, I've decided to give more of a breakdown of the entire work, song to song, instead of summarising everything into a short review.
The album starts out strong, with Craig sailing over an interestingly processed guitar riff, followed by Mess delivering his signature verbiage of assault, as the rest of the band come in. Swan also reprises his newly-appointed role of occasional rapper about halfway through the first song. With its catchy hooks and intricate, well-placed riffs, "Spooks" is the perfect candidate as the album's opener, giving you a taste of Dance Gavin Dance's new sound, but still keeping you on your toes, anxious to hear what could possibly be next.
The record continues with "Pounce Bounce," which is a nice breather from the previous song's energy. One thing that I've always looked forward to, is Mess's likely intentional habit of referencing food in his lyrics, which you'll be delighted to catch in this relatively uncomplicated number. Craig doesn't particularly do anything too impressive, mostly sticking to held-out notes, but his melodies provide an appropriate atmosphere to give the rest of the band a balanced vibe. All in all, it's pretty straightforward.
Next, we've got "The Robot with Human Hair Pt. 2 ½," an implied sequel to a song off of their EP, and a prequel to another from their sophomore album. I think you can figure out their respective titles. Immediately throwing you into the song, it mitigates shortly after with a rhythmically-driven verse, backed by a funk-reminiscent bassline. Mess shows off a bit of his humour in this one, shouting "It's okay, I have no legs," over a pseudo-breakdown. The chorus is memorable and entertaining, although I wasn't impressed with Mingus's generally simple drum pattern. Swan then gets a chance to shine with a solo, and Mingus makes up for before with some nice fills.
"Thug City" is the fourth track of this record. As we all know, Craig has developed a bit of a mainstream rapper's persona, or something of that gravity, so of course, he felt it necessary to say the name of his band and what album this particular song was on (I'm surprised he didn't also include the year), but it actually ended up fitting in pretty well, so no harm done (maybe). "Now, why are you snooping when you should be cooking? If you read my text one more time..." says Mess, keeping things lighthearted and sprightly, while Craig's lyrics throughout the song are more geared towards a girl sleeping with someone and feeling ashamed. Surprising, right? The music is very lively the whole way through, certainly showcasing this band's more easily-accessible change in design, which I think many of their less devoted listeners can appreciate.
Although "Need Money" has an engaging breakdown of sorts, it's a bit mediocre when you really look at it from a musical standpoint -- the breakdown, that is. The song actually gets very enthralling about a minute in, with Craig singing a quick and alluring line over a wah-wah pedal-abused chord progression. Things get chaotic, and Swan throws in some stimulation while Mess goes on about his liver and a football team, finally wrapping up with a slowed-down version of the breakdown from before. This filler of a tune has some nice parts, but is a bit ordinary and/or lacking in some ways.
The beginning of "Elder Goose" has a mellowed vibe to it, with a hint of emotion gradually perforating into the mix. This seems to be one of the band's more honest songs of the album, being full of two-sided lyrics that point at both the writer and the subject, blending into a notable display of musicianship on all fronts. The ending segment brings you back to the style of Downtown Battle Mountain II's predecessor, with dual guitars playing separate but related leads, providing their vocalists with a suitable climate to release remaining tension.
We now advance to the seventh track, which the whole band use to unleash their talents. Mess gets plenty of wordplay, gripping his audience with admiration within the first few moments. Craig keeps things moderate on his end, not fully belting, but lending his keen sense of melody to give the listener something to bob their head to. Swan and Mingus play off of each other fluently, while stopping short of bombarding you with boisterous thrash, clearly making "Heat Seeking Ghost of Sex" what it is: a midpoint in their material, not too one way or the other. If you've never heard this group before, you should surely give this a listen first.
"Blue Dream" is sure to be a crowd-pleaser, and I am entirely certain of that. The band change tempo between each part, allowing them to go from smooth and soulful to upbeat and turbulent at the drop of a hat. Although the chorus is typically supposed to be the most significant part of a song, or at least by mainstream standards, the latter half of this sing-along is what will get you listening over and over again. Jumping out abruptly from a wave of anxiety, Dance Gavin Dance catch you by surprise with a groovy R&B closer, full with chimes and every other embellishment you could imagine. Mess even supplies some faux melodies behind Craig's heartfelt and energetic performance. Don't get the wrong idea, though -- the rest of the tune is completely solid, as well.
This next piece feels very progressive and soothing. Swan gets to rap again towards its introduction, Craig soars during nearly every section, and Mess gets a few parts of his own, eventually coming front-and-center for the closing, which has fantastic guitar and drum work. "Privilously Poncheezied" isn't as whimsical as the title might lead you to believe. While not blatantly expressing anger at any point, it's more solemn and perhaps a bit afflicted, if anything. Even so, the band manage to keep their sense of cheer, if you will, with a charmingly executed pop section in the center.
"Swan Soup" starts with something the group is known for: fast-paced, almost randomly-written guitar work; not to mention, Mingus's ability to match it with his exceptional percussive skills. The track is passionate in its entirety, full of mournful passages, coupled with entrancing basslines that are separate from either guitar, giving Lodge a chance to be more of a focal point. The chorus has an uplifting quality, restoring some of the hope that had momentarily been stripped away from the listener. There is even a breakdown very similar to the ending of "And I Told Them I Invented Times New Roman..." from the original Downtown Battle Mountain, so old fans may get some sentimental value out of this.
Arriving at the final track of this follow-up release, we end with "Purple Reign," easily one of my favourites. It instantly becomes incredibly captivating, as Craig starts singing moments before the band follow suit, giving it their all in this last effort. Things lead into some sort of psychedelic reggae experiment, and Mess just pulls it all together doing what he does best. Lodge shines through a bit here, as well. Just like back in the day, Craig and Mess go back to their roots, saying entirely different things over each other during the chorus. A settling bridge comes into play and follows into the opening verse once more, then back to the chorus. Mingus gets to show off his prowess with some accompanying fills, eventually coming to a closing section where Craig offers some lasting notes and Mess tries out some pitch contortion, until they all fade out.
Both impressive and disappointing, Downtown Battle Mountain II has something for everyone, from the occasional listener, to the faithful fan.