After the first two minutes of this CD’s opening track, this Seattle trio had fully convinced me that they were on to something. “Unseeing Eye” begins with sea-shanty guitar arpeggios, muted drums, and a stand-up bass playing a sliding melody line. As soon as bassist Jherek Bischoff started singing, his breathy tenor conjured images in my mind of a reincarnated Jeff Buckley. His voice gives this song, as well as every other song on Submariner, a smoky jazz-noir edge that few other bands in independent rock manage, the only exception that comes to mind being another Pacific Northwestern trio, the wonderful Noise for Pretend. (The other vocalist, guitarist Sam Mickens, doesn’t sing as often on the record, but he’s no slouch either!) However, Bischoff demonstrates a restraint that Buckley only occasionally displayed. Even when he hits high notes, his voice sounds like it’s holding back a bit. His restraint is a double-edged sword: although it occasionally diminishes the intensity of the music, I get the feeling that any sort of extroverted vocal histrionics would only highlight how heinous the band’s lyrics often are.
Lyrically, a lot of songs on Submariner read like attempts to be as gross and verbose as humanly possible. “White Train” is a drug song with a very confusing use of feminine personification. You can’t really tell whether Bischoff is singing about a lost lover or choking on barbiturates. Either way, “Asphyxiate on her convection/Barbiturate reanimation” is a terrible lyric to use for a chorus, and it’s a credit to Bischoff’s singing that it actually sounds smooth coming out of his mouth. “Below” namedrops Islamic fundamentalist assassins for no particular reason. “Batty” spends a verse each lamenting a baby who died of heart failure and a two-year-old who was blinded by an incompetent optometrist. Too many of these songs simply throw grotesque images and SAT words against each other without any sort of logic. They may sound ominous when Bischoff sings them, but they don’t hold up well on paper.
Musically, though, the Dead Science is excellent at setting atmosphere. The ex-lovers portrayed in “White Cane” slowly forget each other day by day, and the transition from verse to chorus reflects this progression well. A swell of keyboards and guitars play chromatic runs in the chorus, sounding like a procession of broken music boxes. The music gains clarity once the swell ends in the second verse, only to slip back into haziness when the swell returns for the next chorus. It’s a perfect musical illustration of how slippery memory can really be. “The Ghost Integrity” starts off as a finger-picked acoustic shuffle, but ends in an explosion of free-metered drumming and droning strings. In this song, Bischoff urges the listener to carry on his good reputation after he dies: “My name, please contain/It’s all that will remain/the ghost, integrity.” If it weren’t for the diabolical songs that surround it, “Girl with the Unseen Hand” could almost be interpreted as a love song. Regardless, it’s the mellowest and prettiest song on the entire record, with exquisite string arrangements ushering Sam Mickens’ falsetto to even higher heights.
More often than not, the songs with the best musical arrangements also have the sharpest lyrics. Obviously, there are exceptions. For instance, “Batty” may be lyrically muddy, but it has the most bonkers slap-bass playing I’ve ever heard in my life. However, the lyrics remain Submariner’s biggest stumbling block. Second place would go to the band’s occasionally tendency to let songs go on too long. Did “Unseeing Eye” and “Tension at Pitch” really need to run seven minutes a piece? Then again, I’m a Guided by Voices fan, so that might be my attention span speaking. Overall, this is a good debut album from a band I’m looking forward to hearing more of. All three members are great musicians, both Bischoff and Mickens have superb voices, and by positioning itself right at the intersection between rock, jazz, and classical, the band has already carved out a distinct sonic niche. With a bit more editing and a LOT less Gothic pretension, the Dead Science could make an even stronger impression the second time around.