By Jena Ardell
By Brian McManus
By Chaz Kangas
By Sound of the City
By Peter Gerstenzang
By Katherine Turman
By Chris Kornelis
By Brian McManus
'My wife and I went out to the Hamptons last weekend. . . ."
So begins Black Dice member Eric Copeland, only to have the cramped, amp-lined room that is his band's basement practice space explode in laughter before he can finish his story. When the band started 15 years ago in Providence—as an assaultive, post-hardcore, blood-drawing entity that would soon move to Brooklyn and become that borough's highest-decibel chest-cavers—a casual admittance of such bourgeois pleasures would seem anathema.
Yet change might be the band's modus operandi after all these years. "The rules switch each time; our roles change," says guitarist Bjorn Copeland. Eric Copeland began as the frontman for the band, where he would often use the mic as a mace instead of a means for amplification. He then switched to sound manipulation, as did bassist Aaron Warren, capturing, strangling, and tweaking the frequencies themselves. Dice ditched the trappings of hardcore for the tantric, experimental durations of their full-length 2002 debut Beaches & Canyons, then ditched drummer Hisham Bharoocha and overhauled both sound and audience for 2004's Creature Comforts. (Tim Ellison's critical beatdown of that album for the Voice still hangs on the wall of their practice space. The other pinned newspaper clipping: "Soundgarden Inadvertently Reunites at Area Cinnabon," from the Onion.) And since the release of 2009's fragmented Repo, each member's life has changed. Warren and his wife had a baby daughter; both Copeland brothers got married. Perhaps the band's sixth album, Mr. Impossible, hints at a gentler, more Hamptons-headed Black Dice?
"We originally focused on the weirder aspects of music, something repetitive and drony," Copeland says of their discography. "But at this point, we're just [sound of exasperation]: 'Don't bore us, get to the chorus.'" In an alternate-universe way, Mr. Impossible posits Black Dice at their most pop. Sure, the chorus of skittering, squealing opener "Pinball Wizard" goes something like: "WaaaAYeLILIIIIoooOwoW," with a screech like a hard drive or car transmission about to die. Internet-radio algorithms still have no suggestions for albums similar to Black Dice beyond Butthole Surfers' deranged Independent Worm Saloon and the plastic toys of Boredoms' Super Roots 1. Only one song, "Pigs," clocks in under 3:30, yet the album feels strangely short and concise.
Mr. Impossible is pop in the way that a slimy plant pod from Invasion of the Body Snatchers looks like your boyfriend. It's what pop would sound like if you showed Martians a diagram of a Mike Chapman (or maybe Dr. Luke) production and let them have a go at it. There are canned drum beats and song structures (both firsts for the group), noises that turn into earworms, some once-human vocals that get Auto-Tuned, if by "auto" you mean "gruesome car crash." "I'm not sure how much straighter we could be without it sounding like the Cars," Bjorn Copeland says. "To me, it feels like it's not that different than anything else on the radio. It's our tastes, but it's not a totally alien language." It's not? "Of course, being in Williamsburg, your perception changes greatly."
Just don't think of the band as concerned with postmodern approximating, posturing, creating simulacra, or any other high-minded conceit. When they've been slotted alongside laptop musicians, post-rock bands, and artist collectives, they bristle at being mislabeled "smart guy music."
"For me, 'Mr. Impossible' has a certain meaning," Warren says. "If something wasn't 'Mr. Impossible,' it meant: it's not ambitious enough; it's not ridiculous enough; it's not stupid enough. There were these absurd, stupid, kinda cartoon-y characters—not silly, but just weird and dumb." Spoken like a man now ingesting Saturday-morning cartoons with his daughter.
Twisted figures abound in Black Dice's idea of a children's cartoon. Aside from the "Pinball Wizard," there's also imaginary weirdo characters like "The Jacker" (who makes the drrrrrrrng sound from Iron Man), the Front Range Tripper, and, uh, the Shithouse Drifter. "Spy vs. Spy" might be singular in their catalog, hiccupping and plodding where a few years ago it might have been crammed to the brim. Instead, it has enough space to unfurl to arrive at another band first—a breakdown and big riff.
"We wanted stupid big riffs this time," Eric Copeland says. "I really can't make big riffs, but I sorta figured out a way to make them for the album." Bjorn Copeland cues up some Nuggets-era tracks for me, not on an iPod playlist but by YouTube clips recorded via Dictaphone to cassette. Take that, lo-fi enthusiasts. "We're not diddling, it's not a studio project, it's not improvised, it's not jacking off onstage," Warren says of the band's circling back to punk basics after a decade and a half. "Simple beats and simple riffs, with crude instruments; in the end, we're just three dudes in a basement drinking beers."