Six years ago, the band I sang for packed up a rental van and drove 2,219 miles from Los Angeles to Atlanta to tour for two weeks with New Jersey metalcore group the Dillinger Escape Plan. We’d been invited by one of the other openers on the four-band bill, and we wound up playing first night after night, three or four hours before the headliners took the stage. Somehow, in all the hubbub of arriving and familiarizing ourselves with the protocols of a large multiband tour, we never got around to making introductions with anyone from DEP. There were nods and smiles, but no one from either group took the initiative to formally exchange names.
One day became two. Georgia turned into Tennessee, then Alabama, then Louisiana. Still no introductions. Passing the DEP guys backstage, I soon found myself relying on the shrugs and faux grimaces one shares with a coworker in a large office building. Perhaps this was just tour-born indifference. Maybe it was a low-key emotional Mexican standoff. Either way, it sure was awkward.
My band played to crowds uninspired by our music or our merchandise. I made a point of leaving every venue immediately after we finished. One of my bandmates worked for Marriott, which guaranteed us lavish Renaissance suites at Motel 6 prices—glitzier accommodations than the headliners, in fact, albeit through no merit on our part. Within an hour of the end of our set, I was usually in a hot tub, 30 stories above our host city, silent and alone. Hours later, I’d return to the club to herd my traveling companions back into the van.
Over the course of two weeks, these pickups occasionally overlapped with the Dillinger Escape Plan’s sets. I wasn’t actively avoiding them, but I saw no reason to stick around and pretend to enjoy them either. If you pieced together all the snippets of songs I happened to hear as I walked in or out on them, they would’ve added up to perhaps one track. DEP’s configuration of hardcore, metal, and prog was as unintelligible to me as Farsi poetry or static; the aggressive music I’d grown up enjoying had appealed directly to a narrow spectrum of emotions, and very little about DEP seemed similarly straightforward. They mixed their aggro influences with a half-dozen other genres, apparently trying to pull off multiple styles simultaneously—I was struggling to parse a 21st-century band with 20th-century sensibilities, and I felt like a befuddled outsider. When the tour ended I still couldn’t name any of their songs or members. In Tucson, I shared some friendly banter with the singer behind the club, but at that point it would’ve felt rude to blurt out my name and offer a handshake.
The Internet tells me this fellow is named Greg Puciato. Option Paralysis, the band’s fourth studio record, is their third full-length with him—when we toured together he had yet to appear on a DEP album. It’s gotten a lot of excited advance press, which made me realize I’d never given the band a fair listen. I figured it was also safely outside Puciato’s Jason Newsted-style probationary period—which must’ve started out rough, given that when he joined they were already working on an EP with Mike Patton, eventually released as Irony Is a Dead Scene. Physically, Puciato is an imposing front man, with Vin Diesel’s musculature and solemn glare. He has an extraordinary attack to his screaming voice—on recordings it sounds like the roar of a TIE fighter in Star Wars. Throughout Option Paralysis he shows off an impressive variety of croons and shrieks.
His sonic range, however, is blunted by a strange lack of dramatic range. On “Gold Teeth on a Bum” and “Widower,” Puciato channels the affectless self-harmonizing of Layne Staley. In the intro to “Widower” he pulls out an androgynous, whispery falsetto over some maudlin piano (played, improbably, by Mike Garson, best known for collaborating with David Bowie in the early 70s). It sounds like an emotionally wounded middle-aged woman stumbled into the studio midsession. But spooky as this transformation is, it’s a showboaty moment passed off as tenderness—there’s no emotional weight to the song, and it doesn’t feel like it’s meant to convey any particular emotion in the first place, except maybe the satisfaction of precisely executing an arduous piece of music.
So goes the band. DEP have been called avant-garde metal, experimental mathcore, mathematical metal, and tech-metal. Their own sales text refers to them as “technical-metal” and “hyper-complex thrash,” slippery subgenres defined by exhausting technical proficiency and a mulish refusal to get behind any one melody. The atypical passages on Option Paralysis—lush orchestral interludes and spacious lulls—seem like teases between slabs of unmodulated howling and harmonics-sprinkled chugga-chugga. Even these red-meat slabs themselves seem like teases, though in a different way: they offer glimpses of lucid songwriting, but on each and every track they end up turning into a pig-pile of as many ideas as possible. The first half of “Chinese Whispers,” for example, is a superb hardcore song handicapped by the listener’s foreknowledge that the riff won’t last. Sure enough, halfway in the track mutates into something far more complicated and thus far less fun.
I gave the album the highway test, driving through several hours of long-distance errands with each song cranked up just shy of distorting. It felt kind of weird listening to so much crunchy guitar and man-screaming in a Prius, so I tried to pretend I was driving a pickup truck. That worked for a while, until I pulled up next to an actual pickup truck and glanced over at the driver, a younger fellow who looked like the kind of guy who might really enjoy DEP. I quickly turned the music down and stared straight ahead in confused shame.
Here’s my main problem with this record, and it’s a tough bit of bigotry to rise above: the sheer amount of rampaging power leaves an aftertaste of meathead. When I see a ripped dude screaming bloody murder over blazing chuggity-chuggacore, no matter how ambitious and complex, I think of nothing but trouble: parking-lot fistfights, testosterone body spray, screaming oceans of bros.
None of those stereotypes fits the Dillinger Escape Plan. I understand that their music transmits infinitely more subtle emotional nuances to their core demographic. But these are nuances I can’t access, even though DEP’s output shares 99 percent of its musical DNA with the songs I grew up on. Maybe it’s yet another symptom of the balkanization of pop music. Maybe it’s just me. Either way, it sure is awkward.