all photos: Alex Joseph; all words: Philip Runco
I’m still wrapping my head around the fact Black Dice played Merriweather Post Pavilion a few weeks ago. Black Dice! At Merriweather! As the primary opener!!!
Sorry, that happens whenever I bring this up. I can’t help it. I know, the band’s history runs deep with Animal Collective, and it has incorporated heavier beats and user-friendlier dance elements into its stew over the last decade, but we’re still talking about a band whose music has at times embodied the landscape of the first “Matrix” flick: scorched earth, burnt sky, demonic robots roaming free.
Some said Black Dice didn’t go over so well at Merriweather. Plenty would assuredly disagree. And I can’t fault AnCo for sticking by their experimental buds as they ascend to bigger stages, even if it wasn’t the ideal audience for the noise trio.
But what is tragic is that another group of AC’s friends, Gang Gang Dance, happened to have been in Canada that day. Because Gang Gang Dance would have crushed that pavilion.
The Brooklyn five-piece isn’t any less experimental or challenging than Black Dice, but whereas the latter makes music that’s claustrophobic and channeled inward, the former’s is expansive and towering and all-embracing. It consumes influences across land (Afrobeat, London dub, Eastern rhythms) and time (new wave synths, mid-90s R&B, decades of electronica) and turns them into something, yes, massive, but also remarkably focused and wholly its own.
Forget Columbia, Maryland: Gang Gang Dance sounds built to fill the universe.
On Monday night, it would have to settle for a half-full Rock and Roll Hotel.
The band didn’t begin wandering onto stage until after 11:00, offering no explanation for a 90-minute delay. Its performance started like some drunken fooling around that’s turned into a full-fledged hook-up before you realize it. John Diamond casually strolled out to tune his guitar, and was joined not long after by all-things-synthetic workhorse Brian DeGraw tinkering with a console of electronic toys and Tim Kosh warming up his bass. After more than few minutes of what felt like a soundcheck, drummer Jesse Lee dropped a familiar booming beat seemingly out of nowhere and we were in the full swing of Eye Contact banger “Adult Goth”.
Whoa, wait, we’re doing this, Gang Gang? Ok, we’re doing this.
It probably shouldn’t have come as a shock; anyone who has heard God’s Money (2005), Saint Dymphna (2008) or this year’s Eye Contact knows Gang Gang Dance loves a good interlude on record. Live, no song is denied a thoroughly dramatic lead-in. Every one emerges from its own tumultuous and ultimately explosive big-bang genesis. Synths twinkle, waves of distortion ripple, beats skitter out, samples are manipulated, cymbals rattle, and then in an instant, everyone is locked in and a recognizable melody is blasting out.
Is it a bit formulaic? Perhaps. But it’s a formula that repeatedly drew the audience in, whether on aforementioned monster “Adult Goth”, blissed-out house jam, er, “House Jam”, or the surging tropical rave-up “Mindkilla”, which with a few rototoms summoned the thunder of a Rio Carnival parade. This was not a band sheepish about utilizing its three separate drum set-ups, and it put them to good use on Eye Contact’s more aggressive material.
One kit was stationed before Lizzi Bougatsos, Gang Gang Dance’s feral siren. She appeared in a chewed-up jean jacket, Snoop Dogg t-shirt, Iraq War veterans baseball cap, and what looked like Zubaz – an outfit that I myself had thankfully opted against earlier in the night, sparing the two of us considerable embarrassment. (She would lose the jacket and t-shirt in due time to reveal a snug tank.)
Bougatsos picked up her drumsticks on occasion to aid a percussive flurry, but mostly, she was content to sing and dance. Her go-to move entailed outstretched arms undulating slowly to the music, something like a sedated hippy bellydance. Given the mysticism floating through Gang Gang Dance’s music, this seemed like a totally reasonable thing to do. When “vibes manager” Taka Imamura left his position at the merch table to join the band on stage during interstellar journey “Glass Jar” and wave a broomstick around, this too seemed totally reasonable.
Soundtracked to Gang Gang Dance, everything seems totally reasonable. Judging from the crowd’s moves on Monday, the question is not: “Is there an appropriate way to Gang Gang Dance?” The question is: “Is there an inappropriate way to Gang Gang Dance?”
And the answer is a definitive “no.”
Audience members grinded. They mimicked Bougatsos. They head-nodded furiously. They testified, holding both hands, open-palmed, towards the heavens. They alternated thrusting their heads and hips back and forth, in a move I’ll call “see-sawing.” They pogoed. When pogoing gained steam, it became a passive mosh: members bouncing into each other at half speed with arms firmly tucked in, like particles colliding and spinning into new orbits.
By midnight, the crowd’s energy had begun to dissipate and a steady stream headed early towards the exit. There’s apparently only so much “apocalyptic rave” one can handle in the wee hours of a Monday night.
On a Saturday night at Merriweather though? Hopefully some day we’ll find out.