The Brooklyn Rail

SEPT 2019

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SEPT 2019 Issue

Dommengang: Derivative Originality

Dommengang. Photo: Christie MacLean.

Dommengang’s first Thrill Jockey album, Everybody’s Boogie (2015), is a series of studies, ambitious—albeit often tangential—explorations of blues, prog, metal, and ’70s-infused rock templates, sonic sketches that led to the more amply developed and cohesive Love Jail (2018). Dommengang’s latest iteration, No Keys, released in May of this year, shows the band stepping confidently into its own brand of derivative originality, sources apparent yet successfully reconfigured, their particular hybridizations, use of melody, and sublime instrumentation resulting in a sequence at once distinct and tributary: an album for avant-gardists and traditionalists alike.

From the opening track (“Sunny Day Flooding”), eclectic influences are deftly integrated. Dan “Sig” Wilson’s adrenalized guitar brings to mind The Cult’s Billy Duffy, possibly Wilson’s chief influence, along with Jimmy Page and Tony Iommi. Brian Markham’s vocal (he and Wilson switch up on lead duties) is blues-tinged but atmospheric and moody; undeniably American (West Coast) while incorporating the tonalities and Brit-swagger of an Ian Astbury or Nick Cave. Mid-song, Wilson segues into harmonics and truncated/overlapping melodies that conjure The Edge’s concurrently percussive and tuneful atmospherics. Eschewing ’70s guitar-god antics, Wilson contains and compresses his solo, offering succinct and accessible melodic lines while remaining grounded in harmonic rhythm, he and Markham experimenting with guitar-and-vocal doubling à la Page and Robert Plant.

The riff in “Earth Blues” is reminiscent of Ronnie James Dio-era Black Sabbath (Mob Rules), Adam Bulgasem on drums and Markham on bass reminding me in various passages of the exhilarating chemistry frequently achieved by John Bonham and John Paul Jones, especially during live performances (consider the riveting soundtrack for the tedious film The Song Remains the Same [1976]). Dommengang skillfully navigates dynamics and textures, transitioning from high-energy segments to sparse passages. While the track is chiefly informed by bluesy templates, present also is a psychedelic-meets-post-punk quality that renders the piece (auspiciously) difficult to pigeonhole. The opening of “Wild Wash” showcases a druggy, fuzzy, desert-rock instrumentation loosely reminiscent of Queens of the Stone Age circa Rated R. Markham’s vocals strike a hip blend of blues and new wave, and Wilson demonstrates his ability to commingle speed and melody, compromising neither. “Stir The Sea” opens with a bass riff reminiscent of The Doors’s “L.A. Woman,” and Bulgasem’s drums are alternately aggressive and jazzily minimal.

“Kudzu” is the track on No Keys that most demonstrably showcases Dommengang’s affinity, however fleeting, with mainstream sound (compare them to, for example, The Black Keys, also highly indebted to blues structures but with overriding propensities for smooth R&B, easy listening, and disco/dance-y beats). The track launches with a prog-y riff that brings to mind Rush’s Hemispheres, its melody highlighting the band’s capacity for pop composition. As the song unfolds, the band quickly abandons an FM-friendly approach, returning to prog/metal territory—quirky rhythms and Iron Maiden-esque melodies—straddling the line between open-ended jam and controlled sprawl. The only completely instrumental track on No Keys, “Arcularius-Burke” opens as a gossamer epic, nomadic bass notes and sustained guitar licks hinting at the balladic side of Joe Satriani or Steve Vai. The piece builds in intensity and busy-ness, ending with a Zeppelin/Sabbath-inspired riff-and-crescendo, Wilson again demonstrating his knack for balancing speed and melody. The album ends with “Happy Death (Her Blues II),” in which the band combines hard-rock and country-tinged sounds, occurring as a more instrumentally driven and goth-informed Whitey Morgan and the 78’s. Toward the end of the song, what sounds like a keyboard part is added, rudimentary chording that briefly refreshes the sonic mix. The album closes with a memorable coalescence of blues, prog, and metal references: bass, drums, and guitar exploring divergent melodic possibilities while remaining paradoxically and complementarily grounded.

When considering the concept of derivative originality, one can easily compile a lengthy list of pertinent artists. Uncle Tupelo, drawing from traditional country and the distorted sounds of punk, fashioned a sound that engendered alt-rock and (neo) alt-country. PJ Harvey melded folk, blues, and jazz sources, as well as the art-punk of Patti Smith, into a transcendent compound. Radiohead emerged from post-grunge and Britpop, foraying into electronica to forge an unexampled brand of etheric alt-rock. Rage Against the Machine coupled hip-hop vocalizations and metal instrumentation, asserting a confrontational form of rock activism. Timothy Showalter (Strand of Oaks) fuses the psychedelic Americana of My Morning Jacket and the heartland tableaux of Springsteen and Mellencamp, advancing his own brand of lyrically driven folk rock. The Beatles, too, drew heavily and even transparently (particularly pre-Revolver) from Chuck Berry, The Everly Brothers, Buddy Holly, and others. Clearly every musician’s voice and sound are shaped to some degree within the cauldron of the past, those precedents that arouse or affirm inexplicable affinities, offering tacit endorsement of inherent and perhaps unprecedented creative impulses. Such is the relationship between the canonic and the seminal: syntheses and hybridizations, elevated by radical leaps, that represent art’s ceaseless evolution.

Over three compelling albums, Dommengang has mined a plethora of sources, constructing a tightly defined and surprisingly singular sound and style: talented musicians and songwriters with broad knowledge of the rock canon and a craft substantial enough to subsume and transmogrify it as needed. Undeniably part of a hard-rock, metal, and blues lineage, the band’s place on the musical family tree is relatively simple to map. That said, this dynamic three-piece has chiseled and claimed its own niche, one that will in all likelihood expand over time.


John Amen

John Amen is the author of five collections of poetry, including Illusion of an Overwhelm, a finalist for the 2018 Brockman-Campbell Award. He founded and edits Pedestal Magazine.


The Brooklyn Rail

SEPT 2019

All Issues