Long before they became my friends, I’ve held the opinion that the Dead Science are Seattle’s most underrated band. With feet equally rooted in jazz and experimental art influences, the trio have been honing a sound that is paradoxically forward-thinking and hauntedly nostalgic, as if from Days of Future Past.
It’s appropriate then, that in a time of Final Crises and triumphant evil that these avant-rock flaneurs have released their latest album, Villainaire. Appropriate because the band themselves are comic fans obsessed with fellow sequential art obsessives the Wu-Tang Clan; also, because the themes of the album deal with the semantics of villainy and self-perception and self-mythologizing. Singer/guitarist Sam Mickens states in a Stranger interview that Villainaire is, “the idea of being rich, rich with not necessarily even evil, but rich with maybe actions that could be considered evil or decadent, and embracing those actions, allowing those energies to become your raiment, your clothes.”
In Villainaire, the dominant comic books referenced are Batman and the X-Men (particularly Grant Morrison’s run on New X-Men), the idea that decadence can become a defense is counterbalanced with themes of inborn strength and mutation. Duelling Apollonian and Dionysian impulses explored alongside the ways in which our childhood fantasies manifest themselves in the identities we project into the world. Heady ideas, leavened by a theatrical lack of pretension paralleled in the instrumentation as pop R&B hooks are layered over polyrhythmic drum beats and sharply syncopated guitars and bass. Summarizing the band’s sound is difficult; imagine Chet Baker obsessing over Prince instead of Bird, performing in the practice space alongside Blonde Redhead covering Sun Ra and you might start getting an inkling for both the cerebral and visceral pleasure of their music.
On Villainaire, the band swells with additional instrumentation, orchestral strings and brass arranged by bassist Jherek Bischoff, along with layers of additional synths and electronic beats by band members and guests like Past Lives’ Morgan Henderson. Other guests like Celebration’s Katrina Ford and Evangelista’s Carla Bozulich add their distinct voices to Micken’s airy crooning. You can download the “School of Villainy” mixtapes for free direct from the band’s website and hear selections from the record (along with skits, remixes, etc.) for yourself. My personal track highlights are, “Throne of Blood,” and “Make Mine Marvel.” Both songs are a balance of baroque and progressive impulses, full of fluttering, stuttered rhythms and triumphant orchestral flourishes. As Eric Grandy pointed out in the aforementioned Stranger interview with Mickens, the Dead Science create music that communicates and converses with the past/present/future of popular culture. And it’s a culture rich with villains but only sparsely gifted with the rare appearance of a Villainaire.