Review Summary: An alarming disappointment.
This isn't uncommon. Plenty of bands before dredg have built up a dedicated fanbase, amassed widespread ciritical acclaim, and utilized musical expression as an artform with their classic, early sound, only to emerge midway through their careers with a completely new approach. Most notably, Radiohead did it, when they traded in the guitar centric alt-rock found in their 90s work for the atmosphere of the electronic landscapes provided in Kid A. Smashing Pumpkins did it too, when there was nary a guitar to be heard on their gothic/electronic/folk album, Adore. Now dredg has done it, and while they have never been an easy band to pin down, the beat-oriented, conceptually shallow Chuckles and Mr. Squeezy is an album we never would have expected a band who once garnered comparisons to Tool with their earliest work to make.
Now, for the record, departure albums aren't necessarily bad things. Previously mentioned Kid A was widely regarded as one of the best, if not the best, albums of the last decade, and while Adore may have sent a healthy fraction of Smashing Pumpkin's fans running, many still loved that album. The thing that made these two examples, at the very least, relative successes, is the fact that neither of those bands lost touch with themselves in the recording process. Kid A still felt like Radiohead, and you'd never mistake Adore as something other than Smashing Pumpkins. With Chuckle's and Mr. Squeezy, there is almost nothing remaining of the band so many grew to love. This is such a strong change that it would be selling out if there was something for anyone to love about this album, and there really isn't. This definitely won't be the album that turns dredg into international superstars- in fact, the elements that would have done that were far more apparent on pretty much any other dredg release. Unlike "Catch Without Arms," "Chuckles" almost always fails to be catchy without being annoying. Unlike "El Cielo," "Chuckles" refuses to build up any lasting atmosphere to absorb it's listeners. And unlike "Pariah" or "Leitmotif," the song and album structure is neither interesting nor fresh.
And you know what? All those comparisons are fine. We don't need dredg to attempt album sequels, and I think that with the great variation between the albums in their back catalog, it would be foolish for anyone to expect dredg to go into the studio and make "El Cielo II." On paper, there's nothing inherently wrong with dredg approaching their 5th LP as their less serious, fun one, and maybe that's what they were trying to do with "Chuckles." But why does it feel like the people making this record are only impersonators pretending to be dredg? Did they all somehow mysteriously forget that they have one of the most interesting drummers in Alt Rock in Dino? What about Gavin, whose voice sounded so full and angelic on previous releases... why does he sound so hollow and muffled now? And the guitar work was always impressive and immersing before. I don't mind the fact that they wanted to create a less guitar oriented album, but whatever is replacing the guitars better be able to fill their metaphorical shoes, and these bland, boring, almost stock sounding electronics certainly cant. There really is no explanation for this shift in musical integrity. It almost makes me think that this whole album has to be a joke.
Zeroing in on the songs is something that I don't really want to do, but must for this review to feel complete. I've listened to this album a bunch, and I've given it plenty of time to settle. Had I reviewed after my very first impression, I would have only awarded this album a single point, but I kept telling myself, hey, maybe it's a grower? And I guess it grew on me... a little bit, half of a point, to be exact. There really are a couple of stand out moments, and I say that meaning that there are actually a few songs here that wouldn't totally piss me off if they showed up in a dredg set list. First of these songs is opener "Another Tribe." It's almost good enough to illicit thoughts like, "wait, why was everyone so upset about the new dredg album? This song isn't so bad!" upon first listen. The praise offered from that reaction is far from beaming, though, and it feels even dimmer yet when compared to reactions toward "Catch" and "El Cielo." But the beat is alright, and it offers a darker atmosphere that makes the later, most upbeat songs feel a bit ironic. Unfortunately, the hollowness of Gavin's voice I mentioned earlier is immediately noticeable, though that is probably more due to studio ineptness rather than any personal failures on his part. All in all, this is a song that I don't mind getting caught in my head from time to time. The next two tracks aren't bad either. "Upon Returning" has a riff that is borderline obnoxious, but it's forgivable, because this is the one song where Dino is given the chance to shine over the electronic beats. "The Tent" is also a bit of a gem, but it honestly sounds like Gavin doing a collaboration with some trip-hop band like Portishead or Massive Attack. It's an interesting song that has an odd quality of sex appeal, but it just doesn't feel like it belongs on a dredg album.
It all goes downhill from there. "Somebody is Laughing" is okay until the chorus, and then it becomes nearly unlistenable. I felt vomit creeping up the back of my throat when those "ohh, ohh, ohh's" reared their ugly heads. Pretty much every other song is like this- it's catchy, but only because it's so annoying, not because it's enthralling like something off of "Catch Without Arms." "Kalathat" boldly attempts to bring boredom to previously uncharted levels, and "Sun Goes Down" seemed like something that would be a guilty pleasure at first, but after about 5 listens it wore out it's welcome. "The Ornament" is the only other noteworthy piece throughout the rest of the album. It takes a little instrumental bit from "Catch" and expands on it with some vocals that would sound more at home in the 80s. Perhaps the band should have worked this one out fully on "Catch," because it feels like there is an amazing song trapped in here, just yearning to get out... but there was no way the dredg that made "Chuckles and Mr. Squeezy" was setting it free at all.
By any standards, this album is a failure, and "Chuckles" does not fail because it's a change in sound, it fails because it's a change in sound done poorly. The talent of these musicians has been forsaken to make a record that is, in short, an alarming disappointment. I'm completely baffled that dredg would release something like this. While it's not quite the complete train wreck that would cause me to completely lose hope in the band, another effort as sub-par as this will surely do it. Hopefully whatever dredg does next is, at the very least, explainable... because there is absolutely no explanation for a band as talented and artistically motivated as dredg to release an album like this. Absolutely none.