One hazard of reading about music: A writer’s enthusiastic hyperbole can scare you off records that aren‘t nearly as daunting as they sound. You might read reports of an album’s shocking, demented brutality, only to learn, years later, that the music’s goofy and joyful; you might hear tales of the harrowing, depressive bleakness of an LP you’ll eventually find pleasant to put on while washing dishes. Sometimes the prose has to grope a little too hard to find the sound.
This is always a problem for the Manhattan band Gang Gang Dance: The most obvious ways to describe them all come out overheated and misleading. (Keep this in mind as we list a few.) Mention the band’s improvisational roots, their far-flung interest in world music, and their air of mysticism — suddenly they sound like noodling hippies. Mention their dogged experimentalism and imposing, psychedelic sound — now they sound impenetrably arty. Try to describe their approach to synthesizers and dance music, and you risk making them sound like icy Goths or dippy New Agers. And if you mention all of this at once — the idea of making records that can contain synth-pop, near-Eastern scales, raps from British grime MCs, sinister sound art, and more — it sounds like an overstuffed, unedited mess: everything but the kitchen sink, plus the kitchen sink, plus the dishes.
But the record that contained all those things, 2008’s Saint Dymphna, was not remotely a mess — in fact, it was the most clear and lucid record Gang Gang Dance had ever made. Enough so that Florence Welch, an actual pop star, could steal a few sounds from one of its songs for her own “Rabbit Heart,” a top-twenty single in the U.K. The striking thing about Gang Gang Dance — the quality that inspires enthusiastic hyperbole, and leaves boosters struggling to pick apart the wide scatter of influences in their songs — is the way their ideas keep gelling into a sound that’s perfectly sensible on its own. The band’s notion of “pop” is a little like the cities people imagine in science fiction: amalgamations of cultures, moods, and technologies that haven’t yet intermingled, but look and sound like they’ve existed for decades. If anyone ever needs incidental music for a film set in a teeming Indonesian metropolis where everyone’s come to venerate Siouxsie & the Banshees and American rap, they are in luck.
The group’s new album, Eye Contact, marks a step back from the tidiness of Saint Dymphna, but it’s the band’s most successful refinement of all its ideas and influences into one very flexible alloy. The first seconds might be a mission statement to that effect: A male voice says “I can hear everything. It’s everything time.” Granted, the track in question, “Glass Jar,” is eleven minutes long, and spends the first six on ethereal mood-setting — but after that, it launches into a plush, dubby, and totally welcoming rhythm, with twinkly eighties synths imitating Caribbean steel drums. The band puts a high value on fluidity, and tends to lack a clear through-line — a catchy melody, an obvious structure — to latch onto. (Singer Lizzi Bougatsos has the pliable, melismatic style of someone who hails from the edges of the Indian Ocean, not the Atlantic.) But the music they’re making is more inviting and pleasurable — and less daunting — than raves about their bold experiments tend to make it sound. Yes, “Romance Layers” is a heady, elaborate negotiation between Ethiopian music and Prince — but it’s also a good slow jam. And the band’s wide-open, all-embracing attitude toward the world of sound makes their slightly spiritual bent pay off: The music feels curious and life-affirming, as if this act is finding more value and wonder in the world than any other act in the city.
Early in the last decade, Gang Gang Dance were occasionally mentioned alongside another New York band, Animal Collective — who were then still playing improvised morasses of sound, and occasionally coming off like hippies or mystics themselves. Since then, Animal Collective have found great success by bringing their music into closer conversation with sounds we’d all consider pop (and finding earnest, human ways to present themselves inside it). Gang Gang Dance are unlikely to ever sound down-to-earth — they’re too confidently otherworldly for that — but it’s possible they’ve been doing something far more interesting: bringing their music into conversation with a kind of pop that doesn’t even exist.