Dance Gavin Dance—Band Review
Once in a while, you come across a band that is something else.
I had known about the existence of Dance Gavin Dance for years but had never paid much attention to their work. A relatively common occurrence for most fans of the heavier genres is that they tend to be dismissive of bands they do not know or ones that do not fit their very narrow definition of “good”. This paradoxical situation has rendered most of the hardcore metal/core community inert to change and experimentation.
While I don’t consider myself unreceptive to new music, I had a mental image of this band as a bunch of hipsters playing weird ‘noodley’ music: long, unnecessarily complex show-off riffs. All the same, I gave them a try, and though I liked the music, it was nothing special to me at the time. A few years passed, and I picked up playing the guitar during the first COVID-19 lockdown. As I continued to practice and play, my musical taste refined into being more appreciative of songwriting and creativity on the guitar.
About a year and some later, while stuck in college during the second COVID-19 lockdown, I chanced upon a song that, quite literally, changed what I thought to be good music. Inspire the Liars, a leading single from their 2016 album ‘Mothership’, was a far cry from the brutal frenzy of Ice Nine Kills, my then top band. But the song blew me away. I was staggered at how effortlessly this highly complex piece of music came together, how the stylistic change in the last third of the song (and video) was so vastly different from the central theme but so well executed. Guitarist Will Swan weaved an intricate melody, vocalist Tilian Pearson’s hauntingly angelic voice pierced through it, swelled to a climax, and then gave way to Jon Mess’s melodic screaming. It was beautiful, somewhat ethereal. I was hooked.
Thus, I began my deep dive into what I can confidently say is one of the best post-hardcore bands ever to grace the stage.
A VERY TUMULTUOUS HISTORY
Dance Gavin Dance have quite a history to them. They formed in 2005 as a five-piece, consisting of drummer Matt Mingus, bassist Eric Lodge, and guitarist Will Swan handling both guitar roles. They recruited Jon Mess and Jonny Craig as unclean and clean vocalists. While Mingus, Mess, and Swan would remain constants, for the most part, the rest of the band was a revolving door. By the time they released their first EP in 2006, Whatever I Say Is Royal Ocean, they had already had a rhythm guitarist join, then leave, and another join.
The creative force behind Dance Gavin Dance has never been one person, as is the norm with most bands, though, in the early years, most of their creative direction came from Mess and Swan. The duo’s influence has remained constant throughout DGD’s history. Even then, their discography can be divided into three eras, based on the clean singer at the time.
Jonny Craig had two stints at the band, both ending badly for him and the group. In 2007, Dance Gavin Dance released the LP, commonly abbreviated as WISIRO, and their first studio album, Downtown Battle Mountain. Following this, guitarist Sean O’Sullivan and Craig quit, the latter due to drug and alcohol abuse and rising tensions with the band caused when he did not show up on time during their tours. Zachary Garren joined as a new guitarist.
The band signed new clean vocalist Kurt Travis, and all was well until Jon Mess, a critical part of the group, left due to personal reasons—though he would later rejoin. With him left Eric Lodge, the bassist. Travis and Mess did record their second self-titled album, a.k.a the Death Star Album (2008), and Travis stayed back to record another album, Happiness (2009). This period saw a new bassist join, then leave, and Garren kicked out for creative differences. Their replacements joined and left in a matter of months.
By this time, everyone was as confused as you are, and it seemed likely that disbandment was on the horizon. Jon Mess came swooping in to save the day. He rejoined alongside Lodge, and new guitarist Josh Benton, a former bandmate to the then lead singer Kurt Travis. Kurt left, and Jonny Craig rejoined.
They recorded a sequel to DBM, called Downtown Battle Mountain II in 2011. While on tour for this album, Jonny Craig was ‘kicked out’ again, but this time for much more severe allegations, including his infamous MacBook Scam, heavy substance abuse, related arrest, and bad attitude. This break-up was messy, and Craig was shunned by pretty much every project he was part of. Later he would go on to be arrested some more. Bassist Eric Lodge left the band again, replaced by former bassist Tim Feerick, who remains to date.
After recording the 2013 album Acceptance Speech with new vocalist Tilian Pearson, guitarist Josh Benton left the band. The line-up, as it stood, consisted of drummer Matt Mingus, guitarist Will Swan, bassist Tim Feerick, unclean vocalist Jon Mess, and clean vocalist Tilian Pearson. This iteration would go on to be the most stable and continuous—to endure to this date. With Tilian, the band released seven albums: Acceptance Speech, Instant Gratification (2015), live album Tree City Sessions (2016), Mothership, Artificial Selection (2018), Afterburner (2019), and second live album Tree City Sessions 2 (2020).
MUSICAL STYLE OF THE EARLY ERA
The DGD sound did not change much through all the line-up madness. The two constant members, Swan and Mingus, have always directed the rhythm and guitar aspects. Mess has been part of the band for every album but Happiness. He has been writing lyrics with whoever has been the clean vocalist at the time, with inputs from Swan.
As a result, the most defining characteristic of the band has always been the clean vocalist.
The Craig era was known for its soulful, emotive edge. Craig had a voice that exuded whatever emotion he tried to channel. Lemon Meringue Tie, from the album Downtown Battle Mountain, perhaps best describes this. The sequel, DBM2, was also similar but not as good as the original.
What marred the Craig era was not only his antics away from music but also his lack of trying. While Craig had the potential to be more, he chose not to. While fresh and captivating at first, his voice got as whiny and annoying as his public image. All the same, he did help put Dance Gavin Dance on the map. The sound of WISIRO, DBM, and DBM2 serves as an excellent testament to their evolution. Earlier recordings were rough, as expected, and while the guitar playing improved and the drums got more complex, the vocals stayed the same.
Kurt Travis just slipped into the band. He was not as passionate as Craig or as angelic as Tilian, but he fit in very well with the sound at the time. Travis’s voice was something similar to a classic pop-punk timbre with some of Ronnie Radke thrown in, which provided a natural progression from Jonny Craig. In many ways, this was perhaps the most accessible sound since Travis had a vocal range in the mid-highs. Happiness also proved to be their most experimental album at the time. Allmusic.com’s review covers pretty much all bases:
“Dance Gavin Dance’s third album bristles with the kind of overachiever eclecticism that’s as impressive as it is divisive. The band’s penchant for death metal scream-infused verses and poppy, alternative rock choruses feels more accessible this time around, but a significant lack of hooks keeps these ten songs from sticking to the roof of your mouth.”
Overall, the Kurt Travis era can be considered the safest, especially considering the lukewarm reception his successor Tilian Pearson got. A good example of the DGD style in Kurt Travis’s stint would be Uneasy Hearts Weight the Most.
TILIAN PEARSON AND EVOLUTION INTO GREATNESS
With the benefit of hindsight, signing Tilian proved to be what made Dance Gavin Dance grow from a hardcore band that dabbled in experimental jazzy pop to truly brilliant musicians.
Tilian brought with him something DGD had been missing: synergy. Up until now, the band had had their people working together. However, it lacked cohesion, as evidenced by the ever-changing line-up. This confined their musicality to the thoughts of a few. Unlike any other, Jon Mess is a lyricist with various poetic aspects, as in stellar rhymes and hard-to-grasp lyrics that merit a deeper look. While the band’s fans analysed them to no end, perhaps they were a bit too reticent for the average casual listener. Seeing how these lyrics were also screamed/yelled out, it made the music pretty unapproachable to someone with more mainstream sensibilities. The addition of Tilian not only added a new voice but also infused fresh creativity and collaboration. Mess and Tilian complemented each other, and since Tilian was not trying to fit in the boots of his predecessors, he made the music his own.
Their first album with Tilian, Acceptance Speech, was released to mixed reviews. While the word of music ‘critics’ is often best taken with a tablespoon of salt, especially in the metal-adjacent scene, there were some grains of truth. Tilian appeared almost nervous on his first outing with the band, and given its history, perhaps it was justified. This review, from Allmusic.com, got it on the nose:
“Featuring elements of post-hardcore, jazz fusion, progressive rock, and screamo, Dance Gavin Dance are a band whose evolution feels more about refining their sound than expanding it […] Given the revolving door of vocalists the band has seen, longtime fans will no doubt have their own personal favorite vocal pairings, but on his maiden voyage with Dance Gavin Dance, Pearson nails it.”
All the experimenting came to a head when they released the top single from their next album, Instant Gratification, in 2015. We Own The Night was the first song of theirs I listened to, and while I didn’t appreciate it for what it was then, I can confidently say now that it is some of the best music I have ever heard. This was the album where it all came together, and it was a proper justification for the work the band put into its music. Pushing ten years at the time of release, the band sounded fresher than ever, injecting a frenzy and energy into its music that seemed absent in most previous albums. Rather than Will Swan’s guitar being buried under layers of ambient sound or overshadowed by overblown vocals, the twang of the riffs sang right through the mix, working alongside Tilian’s soaring highs and Mess’s much more refined lows. Bassist Tim Feerick held the line with a tight low-end, and Matt Mingus provided a very danceable rhythm to a screamo song.
The subsequent albums were in a similar vein, with the band working more on refining their sound and creating a deliciously palatable mix of every genre possible. The 2016 release, Mothership, is considered their best work artistically and critically, peaking at No. 13 on the Billboard 200. Apart from Inspire the Liars, songs such as Here Comes the Winner, Young Robot, Betrayed by the Game, and their magnum opus, Man of the Year, are worth checking out. 2018 saw the release of Artificial Selection to similar acclaim, and 2020 saw Afterburner, which critics saw as yet another testament of their songwriting chops, with some truly experimental songs such as Into the Sunset and Calentamiento Global.
While the COVID-19 pandemic and accompanying lockdown dealt a severe blow to the band’s touring schedule, the album was released as the second highest-charting new album on Billboard, to critical acclaim. The accompanying tour this year, though, was not devoid of drama, with Matt Mingus going into rehab and a host of COVID cases causing temporary setbacks. Despite this, the tour was a success, with long-time supporting member Andrew Wells formally joining the band.
CULTURE, QUIRKS, AND MORE
One of the most distinct parts of the band and its fanbase has been the culture. DGD lyrics in the Tilian era have been slightly left of centre and often talk about drug use and criticise its glorification. Unlike most bands in the genre, DGD has Will Swan, a Black artist who brings heavy jazz and rap influences into the band and an air of inclusivity. No one in the band has any stereotypical rockstar traits. Though the older albums were often written in the perspective of drug-fuelled anger or sadness, the new ones parody that exact culture and show signs of far more deep-reaching maturity.
Jon Mess is a fan favourite because of his often deep, tongue-in-cheek lyrics that border on nonsensical or profound. A perfect example are these lines from Chucky vs The Giant Tortoise:
I’ll go in cryo and return to life, ho
And make a bisque, tomato basil s**t
Riding a rhino, pico de gallo
Rooster’s beak, I’ll sleep when I leap the jeep
The Rhino line was so iconic, they made a Pico de Gallo sauce named after it and sold it on a limited run.
Here Comes the Winner, a critique of modern reality TV culture, has this—
I grow tired of this game, make me feel like I’m to blame
Fake cry, don’t be that guy
The one that tries to victimize himself to hide a web of lies
Another remarkable aspect of their music is the ‘sequels.’ Classic songs such as Death of a Strawberry or Son of Robot are parts of the Strawberry Swisher and The Robot with Human Hair series. These do not have lyrical continuity but do have a musical semblance. The Robot even has a comic book and a multipart music video movie.
With their extensive discography, DGD has managed to flesh out a separate universe in which Jon Mess’s lyrics make perfect sense. They have a strong association with art and frequently add artsy merch to their collection. They have painted a street art mural in Sacramento, California, featuring their Afterburner album art and are an inherent part of the musical and social scene.
The impact the band has had in its genre is huge.
Tilian’s and Jon’s vocals are just as good live and seldom use any artificial modifications. Their two live albums, Tree City Sessions, Pt 1 and 2, both recorded in one take, are available online, and Tilian has never backed down from performing live with no mastering. Jon’s antics on stage provide a sense of comic relief to performances, as do the band’s fashion choices. They inspired a whole new group of artists who make amazing music, such as vocalist and guitarist Andrew Wells’s band Eidola. They have over a million monthly Spotify listeners, and they make music accessible to the crowd that uses the platform while staying true to their post-hardcore roots. Every major rock publication has been in constant praise since Instant Gratification, with their last three albums receiving universal acclaim. Their music has incorporated rap, pop, rock, metal, jazz, R&B, emo, and everything in between. They have been knocked down, they have got back up again, and released album after album over the course of a decade and a half, never conformed to peoples’ demands, and have never disappointed their fans. They are weird, and they own it.
Their name might be Dance Gavin Dance, but they will knock you off your feet with the complexity and quality of their music.
They are, in a word, magic.
Featured image credits: @dancegavindance/Instagram