The rate at which Dance Gavin Dance continue to pump out music has always been at least mildly baffling. That’s not to knock their achievements by any means; it’s good that they seem to have finally settled into a place of stability after so many lineup changes, with an extremely dedicated fanbase and their own spawned subgenre in ‘swancore’ (which is a completely different kettle of fish to be explored at another time). It’s just that the music that’s come from all of that seems to fall almost exclusively within the range of uncomfortably overworked and utterly headache-inducing. It’s not even like that’s a standard for music as complex as mathcore can be; there’s just something about the wiriness and inability to let go of 2010s post-hardcore acuteness that makes Dance Gavin Dance’s particular brand of it a lot harder to swallow, and the fact they’ve been on it for nine albums now makes their prominence all the harder to take in. It also should be said that they’ve really fallen into a holding pattern as of late where these albums simply feel churned out every couple of years rather than dictated by tangible new ideas, and even if 2018’s Artificial Selection was one of their better outings to date (for the sole fact that it could actually be gotten through without triggering a throbbing migraine), nothing about it indicated anything bold or new for Dance Gavin Dance. They’ve become a reliable band among their set, but one that’s also reliable to produce music that just refuses to sit or do anything beyond confuse and annoy.
Thankfully on Afterburner, they’ve managed to hold on to ability to make an album without it being complete sensory overload, but is that really worth anything when basically nothing else has changed? They’ve not evolved or made what they’ve already got any better, instead just continuing down the same path where a combination of obnoxiously loud instrumental flexing and the inability to make any of it stick is just as awkward to listen to as ever. It says a lot when literally every compliment that can be made about Afterburner has to be followed by a qualifier, and when there’s not one entire song that can be called wholly good, with redeeming qualities instead arising from piecemeal segments that cumulate into some form of quality eventually. That’s how unstable this album actually is, and when they’re regular features of Dance Gavin Dance albums, giving it another crack with the vain hope they’ll work on the ninth go isn’t such an auspicious mindset.
Sure, there’s a lot of technical talent behind this band, and when that’s brightened up exponentially by crystalline production, it gives the whizzing spikes of guitar and spidery basslines and almost glassy feel that’s easily Dance Gavin Dance’s greatest strength. The problem comes when that’s rarely fashioned into a memorable riff or melody, instead opting to pile up fragments of movements regardless of whether they fit together or not, and letting the whole thing spiral in and out of control at equally fractious intervals. It’s exhausting to listen to, no less because modulation is such a rarity with Dance Gavin Dance at the best of times and messy shards of discord on a track like Night Sway hit with such profound discomfort. That enclosed sensation is compounded by the twin vocals of Tilian Pearson and Jon Mess, neither of whom are particularly bad (though Pearson still frequently sounds as though he’s being choked in his cleans), but there’s next to no chemistry in the way the two ram into each other with grace or subtlety being total non-factors. There’s definitely a nice potential poppiness to Three Wishes and Strawberry’s Wake that Pearson commands well, but Dance Gavin Dance’s notorious lack of structure brings that clattering down essentially the second that Mess comes in.
It’s that lack of structure that’s perhaps the most galling factor in Afterburner as well, as while the intention is for Dance Gavin Dance to look creative and quick-stepping in how agile they are at moving from one moment to the next, it instead just comes across like a band who don’t know where to go next. Cutting off a lot of songs on here before they can get to a final chorus is the most widespread instance, but then there’s the degree to which tracks are cobbled together like on Parallels, which starts with a warped take on CKY’s 96 Quite Bitter Beings of all things before taking separate detours into fiddly midwestern emo, undulating soul and stop-start djent riffing. Nowhere is any of this blended or made to seem as though it makes sense, and even if the gutsiness is commendable, the end result being a barely listenable pileup of disparate styles saps any good will almost instantly. Then there’s dalliances into reggaetón and emo-rap on Calentamiento Global and Into The Sunset respectively, and at this point, Dance Gavin Dance begin feeling like either a band who sincerely aren’t aware that you can be progressive while sticking to one sound, or just an out-and-out joke.
The writing doesn’t help to disprove the latter either, the analysis of which is effectively pointless given that Dance Gavin Dance are working within the parameters of oblique scene poetry that has about four layers of security to get through when trying to decipher any of it. In the odd moments where it’s possible, they’re trying to be socially conscious in taking swipes at the vapidity of online influencers on Lyrics Lie or being more narrative in discussing an abusive, borderline perverse relationship on Say Hi, but when opener Prisoner’s central conceit is the narrator tripping on acid and thinking they’re a cat, the search for any consistent depth is essentially a lost cause. Of course, the abundance of outright stupid lines makes that perfectly clear already, most of which seem to come from Mess with a way with words that could’ve mercifully been left in earlier drafts. He describes himself as “Rambo mixed with Rodney” and “a corny cracker” or separate occasions, as well as coming out with such jewel-encrusted lyricism as “Remember when you tried to kiss her / But she was gay and liked your sister?” on Lyrics Lie, or “We’re just a giant ass / Cheeks are made of children” on Into The Sunset – Shakespeare would weep! Pearson isn’t out of the woods either, but at least on Calentamiento Global where he’s co-opting the more steamy, sexualised lyrics in reggaetón (one of his lines genuinely translates to “Your hips cure disease / Your ass brings world peace”), there’s at least a cheekiness and smoothness that makes it a bit more fun. Otherwise, Afterburner is really pushing it when it comes to what can be taken seriously, a statement that feels equally applicable to Dance Gavin Dance as a whole.
Because, let’s be honest – there’s nothing on this album that’s all that worth coming back to. Those who are comfortably on the Dance Gavin Dance train will probably find more of the same to like, but it’s harder than ever to see what there even is to like. Afterburner presents Dance Gavin Dance as a messy, unfocused, borderline joke of a band that effectively embody the “not for everyone” ethos, even as they themselves can’t decide what they want to be or how to be it effectively. Couple that with the fact that this is just more of the same and thus totally forgettable in the greater scheme of progressive music, and Afterburner is little more than a chore to get through and one that can’t in good faith warrant repeat listens. Saying that, when album number ten comes along and it’s effectively the same thing once again, even that’s too close to a ‘repeat listen’ than is suitably wanted.
For fans of: Polyphia, The Fall Of Troy, Isles & Glaciers
Words by Luke Nuttall
‘Afterburner’ by Dance Gavin Dance is out now on Rise Records.