With pop music – at least that of the radio friendly unit shifter variety – three devices are undeniably ubiquitous: earworm melodies, lyrical inclusion, and conventional song format. Think about it – if your song has a good hook, a direct and universal message, and a strategically placed chorus, it’s a fair bet that people will at least give you the time of day.
Then there’s the brand of pop that, in renouncing the holy triptych of most Top 40 hits, chooses to embrace textural nuance, esoteric cultural influences, and alien milieus. Brian Eno is probably the most obvious example of someone who rode this circuitous route to fame, but groups like Sigur Rós and Animal Collective have also made careers out of it in recent years. Enter Gang Gang Dance, the New York foursome whose irresistible cocktail of experimental rock, electronica, and worldbeat found its way onto the radar after the band’s fourth studio record, Saint Dymphna, was greeted with critical adoration. That album’s forays into ambient dubstep, grime, and electrorock made for an abstract but no less flavorful pastiche that found the group finally on the receiving end of praise for a sound they had been continuously tinkering with since Revival of the Shittest made waves back in 2004. There were melodies and lyrics and there was a predetermined framework too, but GGD’s predilection for atmosphere and suffusing its songs with myriad influences usually meant the listener had to work a little harder and employ more patience in finding them.
Though Gang Gang Dance has always very much been a group effort, it’s difficult to mention them without specifically referencing frontwoman Lizzi Bougatsos – a singer whose empyrean vocal style frequently results in apt Kate Bush references. Yet as bewitching as it is, Bougatsos’ voice is just one ingredient in a sound sometimes damn near impossible to pigeonhole; guitarist Josh Diamond, keyboardist Brian DeGraw, and drummer Tim DeWitt deftly conjure complex sonic palettes which only accentuate the drama of her keening voice. Though sometimes beguiling and confounding, the music never failed to mesmerize in the end, taking the listener on a whirlwind tour of varied sonic terrain.
The next stop on this strange yet scintillating trip is Eye Contact – GGD’s fifth full-length and their first for venerable British indie label 4AD. The album also marks the inauguration of drummer Jesse Lee; intoxicating rhythms and inventive percussion have always been a core component of the Gang Gang Dance sound, so it is a relief to hear that none of the group’s rhythmic intensity has been lessened by the presence of someone new sitting behind the kit. In fact, Eye Contact might just be GGD’s most effervescent statement yet – an inspired fusion of dancefloor cadence, ghostly spirituality, and world music melodicism.
In a band known for ingenuity, Eye Contact’s introductory statement, “Glass Jar,” is a new high-water mark; the track is a sprawling 11-minute mélange of careening synthesizers, shimmering electronic arpeggios, propulsive drumming, and Bougatos’s stratospheric coo. Before a single instrument sounds, a voice is heard proclaming, “I can hear everything. It’s everything time.” Though it sounds like an admonition of the kitchen sink approach to music making, Eye Contact is a surprisingly concise statement, a 47-minute affair in which even the extended opening cut feels half its length.
“Adult Goth,” is another declamatory statement, with crystalline synths and icy guitar punctuations doing dances alongside austere soprano moans. The song showcases GGD’s knack for laying down tracks that manage the feat of sounding as blissful and euphoric as they are dark and unsettling. “Chinese High” veers more overtly between spectral ambience and saccharine giddiness, with the latter being constantly encouraged by the childlike squeals of Bougatsos. Maintaining the edginess throughout though is Lee, whose commanding presence on the drums is hard to ignore, even when smooth jazz harmonizations and gleaming keyboard melodies begin to suggest department store Muzak.
“MindKilla” is the album’s most club-accessible cut, its whooshing synths and unrelenting breakbeat lending the track a swaggering sense of bravado.
Though the LP’s homestretch is less engaging – “Romance Layers” is a paean to 1980’s synth pop while “Sacer” plays out like a breezy summertime jam – it concludes with “Thru and Thru,” a thrilling modal composition that rides on Middle Eastern-inspired flute riffs, Lee’s bombastic drumming, sparkling electronic layers, and Bougatsos’ siren wail. It’s an inspired coda to an album distinguished by boundless creativity.
Though Eye Contact represents another exhilarating turn from one of modern music’s most enterprising groups, many people will likely be turned off by the sound of Bougatsos’ helium shriek; that voice may be initially challenging to the ears, but those who arrive with the awareness that this isn’t exactly the stuff of sing-along melodies, honeyed vocals, and verse/chorus/verse gratification will be pleased they stuck around.