The future of electronic dance music isn't a guy launching software on a laptop. It's a band. For the past couple of years, New York's Gang Gang Dance has injected the genre's rigid strictures with a chaotic blend of live instrumentation, global melodies, and good old experimental spirit. With the release of its new album, Saint Dymphna, though, the group has broken through new barriers with a blazingly arty urban thump.
Although it's fixed in a post-techno atmosphere, Saint Dymphna proves an eclectic ride. From the dancehall riddim of "First Communion" to the stuttering synths of "Bebey" and the kinetic dub ambience of "Inners Pace," the album comes off like the soundtrack to some bright art bazaar on Jupiter.
But the record isn't simply weird for weird's sake. In fact, it reaches an unlikely pop capacity on two striking central tunes. "Princes" lets its sequenced synths, random piano, and sheets of noise accommodate the voice of London grime MC Tinchy Stryder. "House Jam" laces an '80s disco beat with spazzy synths, ringing guitar melodies, and singer/percussionist Liz Bougatsos' phonetic vocals. The song sounds like Madonna's "Holiday" on brown acid.
That's not to say that Saint Dymphna will launch Bougatsos' career as an avant-disco diva. In fact, she's integrated her Kate-Bush-via-Meredith-Monk vocals like never before. She blends them in as an instrument, woven into guitarist Josh Diamond's shimmering lines and multi-instrumentalist Brian DeGraw's Bollywoodish melodies, atop drummer Tim DeWit's propelling beat frames.
Formed in Manhattan in 2001, Gang Gang Dance found kinship with noisy psych-folksters Animal Collective and experimental electronica band Black Dice. The group became part of that city's underground music renaissance, a scene commonly termed Null New York. But throughout its tenure, the band has distinguished itself by delivering an ecstatic take on digital-age art rock.
Gang Gang Dance injects its rhythmic mélange with the mystic Middle Eastern tendencies of the Sun City Girls as well as the artful noise aesthetic of Sonic Youth. But unlike those acts, these art kids weaned on the rave era look to subvert the unrelenting tyranny of the drum machine instead of the guitar.
Judging from the murky, psyched-out space jams of its self-titled 2004 debut, you'd have likely placed Gang Gang Dance on the emerging freak-folk circuit instead of the dancefloor. But the next year saw the group fleshing out its passion for grooves on the much-vaunted God's Money, with tracks like "God's Money V" and "Nomad for Love (Cannibal)" bringing sinewy rhythms and bassy synth lines to the forefront.
With last year's Retina Riddim EP, Gang Gang Dance showed off its visual art pedigree. The band produced a long audio-collage CD that accompanied an abstractedly chopped-up tour diary DVD. But tripping out by the screen definitely wasn't the full agenda; by the time the group came to the Mediterranean-tinged prog-hop of "Nicoman" from its follow-up RAWWAR EP, Gang Gang Dance was fully living up to its moniker's foot-shuffling imperative.
It isn't just subverted pop paradigms that set apart this band's approach to dance music. Early on, Gang Gang Dance's live shows ended up with audience members pounding on the instruments while the quartet watched from the bar.
Although now more disciplined, the band has retained its ritualized feel. The other members surround Bougatsos' enclave of roto toms and mike, conjuring their tunes with heads down in deep concentration. That visual — a band ecstatically pushing the envelope, not a guy hunched over his MacBook — epitomizes digital dance music in 2008.