Remember those ‘Magic Eye’ pictures? The ones where among a seemingly chaotic jumble of pixels & shapes there was supposedly an image of a yacht or some such? The first time hearing new music from Dillinger Escape Plan is an experience not unlike staring at one of those pictures. The band come at you with such random ferociousness and in such discordant chaotic waves that it takes a while to work through the sensory overload and “see the yacht”. DEP now quailify as veterans and torchbearers of a sub-genre they created and are market-leading purveyors of some of the most abrasive, confronting and schizophrenic music around. For this reason Dillinger is a band that will only ever appeal to a small percentage of the public, it’s fair to say they are not for everyone.
One Of Us Is The Killer is the fourth full-length release of original material from the boys from New Jersey since their inception in 1998. They have also put out an album of covers, an EP with Mike Patton handling vocal duties and a couple of split EP’s. Being a member of DEP is seemingly an all consuming and tiring occupation as the group has seen several line-up changes over the years. The attrition continued during the making of this album when guitarist Jeff Tuttle quit to rest his weary body and work on his own material.
The current line-up consists of young drum prodigy Billy Rymer – an absolute freak behind the kit. Hirsute Bass player Liam Wilson has been with the band for several years and his style and aesthetic seem a perfect fit. Vocalist and gym junkie Greg Puciato is coming into his second decade as the nuclear warhead of this weapon of mass destruction after winning an online competition to fill the vacant singers spot in 2001. Prodigal guitarist James Love has rejoined the fold after several years recovering from his last stint in DEP and he replaces the departed Tuttle. But the straw that stirs the drink in this project has always been guitarist Ben Weinman, he is the driving creative force and centre of the DEP universe.
Weinman is an evil genius and amazingly talented musician and composer. Before I had the life-altering opportunity to witness the infamously devastating DEP live show I had constructed a mental picture of Weinman as mutant with unnatural levels of fast twitch muscle fibre controlling extra digits on several hands. I can however confirm that Mr Weinman is of normal human appearance, he just possesses musical superpowers that separate him from us mere mortals.
As they headed toward the release of this album Dillinger were in an interesting position. Their profile had been building for several years partly on the back of their recorded material but mostly due to their unbelievable live performances. The fact these guys can not only perform such challenging music perfectly live but also put on the most incredibly punishing of physical performances beggars belief. The live show must be seen to be believed. Among the challenges confronting the band leading up to ‘One Of Us Is The Killer’ were how to maintain artistic evolution within a sound and genre they pretty much invented and perfected ? They were never going to stand pat and deliver the same product over again, but how do they expand their sound without diluting what they had created ? The elitist musical snobs of the bloggersphere had been growing in their distain for the group for years, claiming anything other than a re-issue of brutal breakthrough album Calculating Infinity was a sell out. On the other hand the changes in their sound meant a growing ratio of listenable “songs” on their albums bringing increased exposure and popularity. Whether cognisant of the fact or not, DEP were at a minor crossroad with this album. The challenge was to progress enough to satisfy themselves as artists and widen their support base whilst not altering their approach and style drastically.
So how are the results ? I’m glad you asked!
Prancer kicks off the album and is the statement of malicious intent you would expect. Their infamous off kilter timing is soon chased down by Greg’s guttural roar. The journey continues with the song throwing a myriad of twists and tricks at the listener. There is an occasional brief respite for a few bars of jazzy interlude but never for long enough to relax. The next track ‘When I Lost My Bet’ is in a similar brutal vein. These tracks both contain the DEP hallmarks – crazy timings, sudden 90 degree turns and unbelievably impressive musicianship. The second track contains more of a hook than the first, but even that doesn’t stay around long before being swallowed again into the abyss of craziness.
The first thing that strikes me about these songs is the drumming of Billy Rymer. Many fans despaired when Chris Penne left the band to join Coheed & Cambria fearing his skills would be difficult to replicate. Gil Sharone filled the drum stool admirably for a while but neither of the former skins men is missed when this young blood is in full flight. Rymer ignored the early death threats and vitriol from disgruntled Dillinger fans and has gone on to be a valued member of the band. The skills he brings are a perfect fit to the group and nobody will be questioning his place among them now. He shines on this album and stands out among the chaos of the opening tracks.
The mood changes considerably on the third and title track. A laid back beat with Ben noodling gently along kicks it off before Puciato adds a falsetto vocal to the mix. The chorus soon arrives and takes things up a notch. It is a remarkably standard sounding hook for this band. Big power chords and a soaring vocal melody mark the first really catchy moment of the album. It shows the range of the band and Greg in particular showcases his impressive voice. It is the early stand out track to my mind, it will however polarise the more judgement DEP fans who no doubt will accuse them of selling out due it’s lack of abrasiveness. These breaks from the dizzying math core barrage have been a feature of the last few DEP releases and the variety they inject is welcome and these compositions show they are more than capable of writing a “song” when they feel the urge.
Next, shit gets real again with an absolute pummelling handed out by the track ‘Hero Of The Soviet Union’. It lets up long enough to throw some hooks at you before coming in with more haymakers. Greg Puciato is in killer (pardon the pun) vocal form, shredding his vocal chords and sounding genuinely pissed off. It’s these moments when Dillinger back the pace off just a little that Greg sounds at his most angry and explosive. ‘Nothing’s Funny’ follows and is immediately more straightforward – in a Dillinger kind of way. A riff, which grabs your attention, is powered by a driving rhythm, Greg has been accused of sounding too much like Mike Patton at times and this song will be grist for that mill. As expected even as the song rolls along and draws you in there are a few wrinkles thrown into the mix. The odd drum fill or guitar part chucked in a place you least expect either adds interest or distracts from the foot tapping qualities of the song depending on your perspective. Another falsetto vocal in the pre-chorus helps add variety. Underneath it all Weinman is twiddling away impressively, perhaps entertaining himself throughout a more standard verse-chorus structure.
As expected there are parts where DEP do the DEP thing and put in some impressive picking and riffing but as a whole this stands as one of their most accessible songs ever. ‘Understanding Decay’ starts with a little mini-showcase for Billy on the drums before the signature Dillinger again takes over. The clean vocal at the mid-point does add texture and a point of difference but the music is the familiar DEP sound and Greg can only contain the menace for a short time before kicking out again. ‘Paranoia Shields’ is another interesting ride, Greg follows the vibe of the music from restrained whispers and growls through to another big chorus. Again if it wasn’t for a few distinctly Dillinger features scattered throughout this could almost be a normal song.
The only issue for me at this point is whether DEP feel a need to force these parts into songs to maintain their identity. Without being privy to their creative process it’s a hard thing to judge, but there is no doubt some of these parts initially seem a bit tacked on, however I tend to give them the benefit of the doubt knowing there is the chance these are some of the parts that will grow on me in time. When the staccato sounds of the drums and the muted riff kick in on instrumental next track ‘Ch 375 268 277 ARS’ my first thought is “how the fuck do they write this stuff?” Surely this cannot be the organic result of a bunch of guys plugging in and jamming ? Maybe it is, maybe not, but this track is another spawn of brilliant and warped musical minds regardless of the process.
‘Magic That I Held You Prisoner’ is another aggressive DEP anthem in all its glory. It’s a solid track but tends to blend a bit with the other white noise. The following track ‘Crossburner’ kicks off with a bass heavy intro before Greg rips it a new one with screams from the depths of his bowels. Things slow down during the middle section and Greg resumes his menace whilst dragging us toward to the inevitable pay off. The song is among the most layered and interesting on the album and stands out by including enough different elements to separate it slightly from any previous work. This highlights the challenge of a fan like me assessing a band like DEP, it is inherent in their nature progress musically & artistically but often the changes are slow and incremental. Whilst a track like this isn’t a huge departure for the band it does sound vastly different to their early work and represents a style they have been building on and refining subtly for several albums. The opening strains of ‘The Threat Posed By Nuclear Weapons’ lulls you into a brief second’s worth of false security before being violently interrupted by discordant bursts of noise that hint at the chaos on the horizon. Before you can blink you are balls deep in a song that is driven by a killer riff and flipped around by the usual DEP twists. This track nicely highlights how Liam’s bass has played a more prominent part in the mix of this album – another minor difference that separates this slab from the previous efforts.
It is the subtle changes that are going to keep DEP ahead of a game they may have already won. They are at the top of the heap of their chosen field, they have nothing to prove to anyone and no apparent interest in trying, they have always given the impression they care little for the haters. This album has enough accessibility to possibly attract some new listeners and that is precisely the trait that will likely cause some existing listeners to drop off but you get the feeling that either effect has had no bearing on the creative process behind One Of Us Is The Killer. Having recently made moves to ensure they maintain creative control and are totally in charge of their own destiny on the business side, the band are now completely masters of their own destiny. This independent approach and their need to be challenged by the artist facets of the band mean we can likely expect DEP to keep being DEP into the future. I for one think that is a very good thing and cannot wait to be torn a new one at another of their live shows soon.
In summary I would describe this album as like riding a new rollercoaster blindfolded. There are lots of unforeseen jolts, twists, turns, ups, downs and a lot of screaming. Yet it does something to our adrenaline and endorphins that just make you want to do again.