Broken Ear Record
ontaining neither the otherworldly beauty of Beaches & Canyons nor the organic subtlety of Creature Comforts, Broken Ear Record marks another transition in Black Dice’s discography, yet again transposing styles and rethinking the concept of the sound they create. That is a bold statement for any band, but even more so for Black Dice, considering the band has aged eight years and has leapt from seconds-long blasts of destructive noisecore to elongated passages of blissful psychedelia.
So what is this new territory that Black Dice are surveying? In short, Broken Ear Record expands and disrupts the style of 2003’s fucked up dance single of “Cone Toaster” into full-length form. Although just how much “dance” material Broken Ear actually encompasses is highly debatable, nearly each of the seven tracks on the album adhere to a strict set of beats. Oddly enough, this—Black Dice’s first record without their longtime drummer, Hisham Bharoocha—is also the album that features the boldest beats and easily their most intelligible rhythms to date.
In support of their newly realized emphasis, guitarist/ sound manipulator Bjorn Copeland explains that, “It got hard to be alienating people every single night. We wanted something that people could connect to more readily.” An ironic statement, considering Black Dice have long been a band that people arrive at when they feel alienated from more straightforward and conventional music. Whether it was the corrosive avant-hardcore released on Troubleman and Gravity, or the unhinged experimentalism beginning with Beaches & Canyons, Black Dice have an extensive, well-documented history with leftfield music of all kinds. Yet, Broken Ear is by far the most linear piece of music Black Dice have created.
Although Black Dice claim there were no drum machines utilized in the crafting of Broken Ear, in tone and precision the beats that back the trio’s sonic rumblings and electric squeaks certainly recall the cold, mechanical clatter of electronic drums. The most rigid example arrives in the album’s closing track, “Motorcycle,” a song that I only half-jokingly refer to as Black Dice’s party jam. The song, introduced with an industrial stomp of a rhythm, is quickly augmented by a jangly, almost doo-wop-like guitar melody and upbeat, yelping vocals. Historically, it sounds the least like Black Dice as they ever have, yet it is one of the album’s boldest—and best—tracks.
More perplexingly, “Smiling Off,” the album’s longest cut at nine minutes, is also Broken Ear’s lead single. The track is all electronic pops and bubbles, humming bass drones, and high pitched whistling, with a lyric-less vocal segment entering half way into the track. Grounded by the incessant clang of drums and percussion, the track would be twice as interesting if the sound-based elements were left to layer and accumulate on their own accord and allowed to form rhythmic patterns with themselves. Instead, “Smiling Off” feels suffocating and strict, giving the song no room to breathe and air itself out.
Other more chaotic moments prove to be worthwhile, though. “Street Dude” pastes squalls of static over the rhythmic elements as a blurred guitar line drifts through the ether and sampled voices mumble in the background. It is the album’s noisiest cut, and for a brief moment my memory falls back five years to Cold Hands as “Street Dude” fleetingly recalls Black Dice’s brash hardcore swan song.
Elsewhere, Broken Ear Record is both tepid and almost lackadaisical in its approach (“Heavy Manners”) and exhilarating in its textures (“Snarly Yow”), but never close to as structurally adventurous as any other Black Dice recording. There is a fair amount of content that is genuinely interesting—and in and of itself the album does hold some appealing sounds and techniques—but, on the whole, Broken Ear is limited and bogged down with its exacting and overriding sense of rhythm and lack of true sonic experimentation.
While Beaches & Canyons was an album of drifting noise delirium and Creature Comforts was heavily imaginative with its implied rhythmic structure, it is these two things that Black Dice seem to be revolting against. It is not just a sidestep in style, but also a retreat backwards. With a band already littered with such spectacular precedents and unpredictable beauty in past recordings, I can’t help but feel disappointed. If this were a debut album, I’m sure my vantage point would be thoroughly positive. But taken in context, Broken Ear Record is more direct and deliberate, grounded and obvious. And as a diehard Black Dice fan of many years, I can think of nothing more alienating than that.
Reviewed by: Ryan Potts
Reviewed on: 2005-09-06