Review Summary: Possessing both remarkable immediacy and nuanced to a tee, Downtown Battle Mountain dares to bask in its own schizophrenic vocal interplay, and with that develops an arresting aesthetic, all dolled up with Dance Gavin Dance’s finest musicianship to date
It’s no secret Downtown Battle Mountain
has overshadowed Dance Gavin Dance’s career for a while now. The musicianship on this record is top-notch, the dual vocals complement and off-set each other brilliantly, and the whole thing works well cohesively. It would be, perhaps for a band of Dance Gavin Dance’s tier, hard to follow up with a better, similar sounding release. While the Rise Record stalwarts have released a string of albums since, with varying critical acclaim, the band has never truly returned to the sound developed here. And with Craig’s antics and the influx of member reshuffles in mind, Downtown Battle Mountain
still however hovers heavily over Dance Gavin Dance’s career. What we can only do is return to this record; a wonderful spin on the post-hardcore genre.
It’s only logical to view Downtown Battle Mountain
with the focus solely on vocalist Jonny Craig. The songwriting here frames him as the albums centre piece, and with good reason; he belts, croons and wails through the albums eleven songs with an incredible force and unmistakable soul. These descriptors of Jonny Craig’s voice could easily pass him off for an RnB artist, and at times he does sound like a less-chill Tracey Chapman, but he somehow manages to fit the post-hardcore blueprint perfectly. And that’s just it isn’t it? He’s not on an RnB record; he’s here. Outside the music, Craig’s career has derailed quite a bit in the public eye, and while more sensible contemporaries such as Anthony Green succeed in improving by focusing solely on their music, with Craig we have this to look back upon; a fractured voice, punctuated by soul leaning and balls-to-the-wall belting, but it’s what makes his voice so compelling, so at home on in the studio as on a live set. I find myself coming back to Downtown Battle Mountain time and time again, to immerse myself in the immediacy of ‘And I Told Them I Invented Times New Roman,’ to the vocal infliction of the last drawn out note on ‘12 Hours, 630 miles.’
Craig’s mid-verse in ‘It’s Safe to Say You Dig the Backseat’ is perhaps the epitome of what he can achieve through soul. The narrative is a filthy ‘backseat’ encounter with a prostitute or perhaps just a sexually precarious woman, it never lets on, but it’s how Craig describes it, and his disgust there-of, that is the real selling point of the song. ‘Morals become something from a dream’ he sings, and whist poignant on its own right, the thing that gets me every time is just how damn impressive each word is voiced. The way ‘not the sight of you’ seems to plod off into thought, how ‘caught up in this way’ seems to tremble on his tongue and finally how he climbs into his falsetto with ‘you said I sowed that dream alive’. The vicarious and raucous subject matter here is off-set beautifully by how its delivery is captivating and alluring. And while Jonny Craig’s voice cannot on itself lift a record into a classic, the rest of the band doesn’t let this aspect pass up.
Jon Mess’ raspy, abrasive voice has a place here too. The main detractors of Mess seem to ill place him as a run-of-the-mill screamer; a range, and a lyrical ability he just doesn’t possess. To put Mess in this box however is to rob him of the texture adding and substance constructing catalyst he is on Downtown Battle Mountain
. The best display of this is in ‘And I Told Them I Invented Times New Roman’ were the song explodes at the last refrain as each member is seemingly trying to out-do each other. Craig’s voice cuts over the rest of the band so well, and the cries of ‘I won’t believe the lies’ are probably what most listeners will centre on. But it’s the substance adding screams of Mess that simply work splendidly in creating such an emphatic end to the song. The song winds down with a-typical breakdown notorious of Dance Gavin Dance’s contemporaries, but here, the rhythm is accentuated by dissonant swinging chords and Mess’ antagonising lyrics.
The guitar work on the album noodles around sporadic riffing, dissonant chords, and downright infectious leads. The songs valley because of the different voicings of each lead, and makes each song arresting and arranged interestingly in their own right. The tones fluctuate in and out of clean chordal leads, and power-chorded distortion of choruses, with usually a staccato picking arrangement on top. What’s most impressive is the way the guitars seem to play off each other, as the distortion off-sets the cleaner, more melodic parts in brilliant fashion. From the outset, ‘Lemon Meringue Tie’ is an example of this. The cleans play out nicely, only then to be plunged into reverb staccato and pseudo ambience. After a sole listen, it’s guaranteed you’ll come away with the bouncy climbing lick of the guitars stuck in your head.
The album isn’t without a few flaws however. ‘Strawberry Andre’ seems to interrupt the flow and climaxes the previous songs had been setting up, with simply underwhelming verses and Craig a little subdued throughout. Further on, ‘Turn Off the lights, I’m Watching Back to the Future’ isn’t as hard-hitting as the songs it sits alongside, and slides by without notice. Apart from those two songs, the rest of the album peaks and is structurally sound, offering enough variety in tones, dynamics and a harmony between the two vocalists and their respective parts. The album feels cohesive, especially through the last set of songs. In this aspect, the few aforementioned dud songs do not detract all that much. Case in-point is ‘Hey I’m from Cuba, Everyone Has One Brain’s’ soaring refrain ‘Step back, let go!’ as it drowns out into an ambient backing for ‘12 Hours, 630 Miles’ as the acoustics take centre stage.
‘12 Hours, 630 Miles’ works wonderfully as a closer, as it is a cathartic release of the energetic climaxes that dominate the record, but also fits in beautifully with the aesthetics of the album. It has few words, but the most profound. As Craig sings firmly ‘starting or ending?’ there’s something self-definitive about it – the acoustics seem reminiscent of the acoustics of ‘Untitled’ and the same ambient siren seems to hover around the whole album. And perhaps Dance Gavin Dance know this, and seem to apply vague strains of self-awareness into Downtown Battle Mountain
. Opening lyric ‘I believe there’s meaning/No I believe there’s nothing’ aptly describes the lyrics for the entirety of the record (particularly Mess’ ones), and almost find them encompassing of a polaristic opinion on religion, god, or anything that warrants it. The album leaves us with the words; ‘Well I feel you thumping/ Just don’t run from me/ Well I’ll follow you only/ Until you give in;’ not entirely cryptic, but evidently stream-of-conscious and the flexibility to shape whatever meaning the listener would want to connote them with.
What I find most appealing about Downtown Battle Mountain
is that you can return for the infections leads, the massive choruses and attempt to sing along to Craig’s belted lines, but it’s the little nuances that impress me most. Tuning into each instrument does wonders for the longevity of this record, but what I find most appealing is the way I react to it hasn’t changed. It’s immediate, yet it does possess a depth in which each listen rewards with nuanced aspects you never had seemed to notice before. I’m still discovering nuances in the album, for example; The aforementioned vocal delivery, how the ambient siren backing weaves in and out of the songs, how the acoustics seem reciprocate the mood of lyrics, and the subtle tension underneath Craig’s croon in the closer. Even the sepia toned album art has more in common with the sound here than you might realise; it shares the sort of nostalgic weight the sound of the album carries, and with that, is accentuated by the fact that the bands has never truly returned to the sound they had here. The album is painted as an exuberant yet naïve debut opus, and fittingly, with the revolving door line-up changes and contextual drama, the band have never really been able to recapture that. In that sense, were left with this, a hauntingly excellent debut.