Months after its release, I still have trouble entirely wrapping my head around Gang Gang Dance's Eye Contact. That's not a criticism -- quite the opposite. It's been awhile since I heard a record that left me so happily bewildered. That's not necessarily because the album is "experimental" or "difficult," but because of the way it mixes pop and dance music so promiscuously with fragments of noise and sunburst. (I might have been prepared had I heard the band's previous album, 2008's Saint Dymphna, an omission in my listening I have only recently, and gratefully, rectified.)
One of Eye Contact's great pleasures is the way it evokes so many kinds of music -- it's a dizzy rush of references even though, more often than not, Gang Gang Dance don't really sound like anyone other than themselves. I decided to catalogue the antecedents and associations that came to mind. Read on for a track-by-track breakdown of Eye Contact's range.
Track 1. "Glass Jar"
"I can hear everything ... It's everything time," intones a man's voice at the song's opening. It could be a koan, but there's something in his drawl that makes it blasé; it could be just an observation, the kind of thing every listener deals with nowadays -- Kanye or Scriabin? Mixtape or Tibetan monks? It's a tough starting point for musicians: how do you justify adding to the noise, and how do you amplify your pin drop? "Glass Jar" isn't really about referential overload. The band simply beats a path to the sublime the old-fashioned way, with a drawn-out crescendo exploding into high-stepping Fourth World techno pop. But you can hear the influence of trippy, blippy records like Klaus Schulze's Trancefer in the song's buzzing synths and long, meandering lines; Gang Gang Dance are clearly listening to some of the same records as Oneohtrix Point Never. There's a little bit of Bjork's Volta in there, too -- not so much the sound as the general instability -- and trace elements of early Knife (steel drums! yelping!). And where do we file those synthesizer stabs? Zomby? Tiesto? (Holding this alongside the latest Hudson Mohawke EP and Araabmuzik's Electronic Dream, I'm left wondering: when did all the hipsters start listening to trance?)
Track 2. "∞"
Writing about Gang Gang Dance leads to such questions as, "How do I make the infinity symbol?" (Found it.) And, "What language is that?" On this one-minute interlude, a scratchy, extended sample of a vocal baritone solo sounds almost Italian, although it's decidedly not; the lilt in the voice sounds vaguely Eastern, and the way it fuses with limpid New Age chords reminds me, however erroneously, of the heart-rending modal acrobatics of Georgian folk music, like The Tiesto Rustavi Choir's Georgian Voices, Rustavi Folk Choir's Georgian Lyric Songs, or Harmonie Géorgienne's Sacred Georgian Chants.
Track 3. "Adult Goth"
Electric guitars come raining down in big, cartoonish strokes like the colored droplets in Sin City; it's the kind of trick Siouxsie and the Banshees pulled off on 1986's wonderfully overstuffed Tinderbox. (Right now I could kiss G.G.D. for giving me an excuse to check in with my 15-year-old self's favorite album.) There's something of Siouxsie in the banshee howl of G.G.D.'s Liz Bougatsos, for that matter; also something of Bollywood, as many critics have pointed out -- I don't know, but her sliding pitch does often sound non-Western, except when it sounds like Kate Bush. (Again, not a bad thing.) And, just because I'm old, I want to hear a hint of Propaganda's A Secret Wish in this, as well, whether it's for the Fairlight stabs or the unabashed drama. (Right now I could kiss G.G.D. for giving me an excuse to check in with my 14-year-old self's favorite album.)
Track 4. "Chinese High"
From the coiled groove and splotchy bass, it sounds like G.G.D. have been boning up on the dancehall showcased on Mo' Wax's great Now Thing comp. (Sadly, it's unavailable on Napster, as is the majority of the Mo' Wax catalog, which somebody really needs to reissue digitally. For reference, check out Lenky's Diwali or Bubble Up riddims.) Except G.G.D.'s drumming is fuller and fatter, and they fill in the empty spaces between the beats with the sort of sparkly DX-7s and fretless bass riffs you'd find in Billy Ocean's Suddenly, an album whose neon R&B sounds suddenly, surprisingly relevant in 2011. At some point, I could swear that I flashed on the South African house producer DJ Mujava's " Township Funk," but I'd be hard pressed to tell you where. As for the song's strange bridges and segues, I'm at a loss -- perhaps somewhere there's a band that attempts a similar fusion of Yes and Sade, a cover band at a Hilton in a postcolonial city, where sound still travels at the speed of cassette tapes plucked from market stalls.
Track 5. "Mindkilla"
I read somewhere that this references 1991's "Fear: The Mindkiller" by the late techno producer Eon, but I don't hear an explicit reference -- though it's likely that Gang Gang Dance are also fans of Dune, the source of Eon's "Fear is the mind-killer" sample. The track opens with the same sort of glum keyboards that witch housers like Salem are so fond of, but here they're a means rather than an end -- a springboard for Bougatsos' Björk-meets- Cyndi Lauper hiccup and a launching pad for the song's rolling, reggaeton-like groove. It's all a bit like a lo-fi Basement Jaxx, from the carnival vibes to the hyperkinetic overload; more fancifully, it suggests to me what the Boredoms might be doing if they were influenced by Afrojack and Dutch house rather than heavy metal.
Track 7. "Romance Layers"
And here, it's revealed that Gang Gang Dance are also fans of R&B slow jams. They're hardly alone here; James Blake, How to Dress Well and, to a lesser extent, The xx have all flirted with indie-fied flavors of R&B. Part of the twist here, though, is to put a warbly falsetto from Hot Chip's Alexis Taylor in place of the Barry White-grade baritone you expect. As before, the bright, digital sounds and hard surfaces evoke the tired acoustics of a Radisson bar band, something that makes the muscular drum fills -- shades of D.C. go-go bands like Trouble Funk -- positively leap from the speakers. (I'd bet you money that the band has a dub of Dam-Funk's Adolescent Funk in the cassette deck of their tour van.)
Track 8. "Sacer"
One of the sunniest songs on Eye Contact, "Sacer" faintly recalls the Caribbean sugar rush of The Knife's The Knife; watery guitar lines echo Cocteau Twins' Heaven or Las Vegas. Beyond that, I actually have trouble finding precedents, but that might only be because, by this point in the album, I find my brain turning into overstimulated mush.
Track 10. "Thru and Thru"
It all comes together here, from the Eastern modalities to the Zomby-like arpeggios to the processed vocals, which fuse Kate Bush with The Knife like a digitally morphed photo portrait. I don't know why it didn't occur to me before, but Battles' brand of pitch-shifted post rock is all over this, even if Gang Gang Dance are less invested in traditional chops. The music spins dangerously close to out of control, and the mind spins with it: it's a mad, mad, mad, mad whirl.