October 22, 2003

Del Rey "Darkness and Distance"

Del Rey is an instrumental band from Chicago that is signed to My Pal God records. Is there really anything else I need to say about this album?

Well, of course there is! It would take a historically untalented group of plagiarists to make an album whose sound can be succinctly described by mentioning the band’s hometown and record label. Although it can’t be denied that Del Rey likes its post-rock and its drop-D guitar tunings, Darkness and Distance is more than a mere genre exercise. This band has just enough distinction to separate itself from the thousands of Tortoise-paced and Slint-sational groups cluttering the scene. However, like most bands of their ilk, they have an Achilles’ heel that keeps them from ever reaching the heights of the seminal bands they imitate.

It’s too bad that the album opens up with its weakest (and longest) track, “Asimov.” It begins with a snippet of ambient droning run backwards. Once the drums and guitars come in, the song becomes a more metallic version of Stereolab’s one-chord motorik chugging. Then, it abruptly switches to a bongo-driven Latin-tinged vamp that screams for a Carlos Santana guitar solo. The song grinds to a halt at the five-and-a-half-minute mark, and if it had ended there it would be brilliant. Unfortunately, the band tacks another section on to the song, a New Age beat that sounds like the kind of music the Knight Rider would listen to while cruising. This segues into ANOTHER tangent, this time consisting of Sonic Youth-style dissonant grinding. Then, they go BACK to the Latin vamp before finally letting the song end at the nine-minute mark. It’s not that any of these ideas are bad ones; it’s that they don’t really make sense together, and the transitions are very awkward. It sounds like a haphazard edit of the best parts of four or five separate jams.

The rest of Darkness and Distance proves that Del Rey are a much stronger band when they use slightly fewer building blocks to construct their songs with. Most of the other six songs share two common characteristics. One is that the guitars and bass play slow, spare, and syncopated riffs while the drummer(s) go berserk. You probably won’t hum any of these songs while on your way to work, but you might beat-box the drum parts of the songs (if you’re as much of a dork as I am). For instance, “Dust Huntress” positions one drummer on each speaker. The drummers fall slightly out of sync with each other, which produces a delayed stereo effect. You’ll spend most of the song listening to see if one of them will screw up (they don’t, though).

Another common feature of these songs is that the instrumentation alternates between programmed drums and live kits, and these transitions often set atmosphere and delineate significant dynamic changes. “Staph and Strep” begins with a sheet of pretty guitar harmonics draped on top of soft drum programming. The guitars get louder and louder, building up to a climax in which the bass and live drums come in and announce a crushing drop-D riff. “Dual Sun System” makes a similar transition in a subtler fashion: the “real” instruments slowly fade in while the programming slowly fades out. “Deploy” takes the opposite tack; the song switches from electronic to organic and back again quickly and frequently.

Ironically, the best song on the album is its closer, “Vega.” This is
because the guitar actually plays a memorable melody, and when bagpipes unexpectedly arrive at the song’s end, it forms the album’s only non-rhythmic hook. All of the instruments are treated with dub-style echo and reverse effects, and the real and programmed drums play in tandem until you can’t figure out which is which. It’s the best song that Tortoise didn’t write, which brings me to my final point. The band’s tendency to cram too many ideas into a single song only pops up once on this album, so that’s nothing major. Del Rey makes good records, but what keeps them from being GREAT is that they focus much more on rhythm than they do on melody.This, more than anything else, is their Achilles’ heel. If they find a more equitable balance between rhythm and melody, their best work will certainly be ahead of them.

---Sean Padilla

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