Review: Dan Deacon, Gliss Riffer

Dan Deacon's ninth LP is an album that demands maturity.
dan deacon gliss riffer

opinion byZACHARY BERNSTEIN < @znbernstein >

Deacon’s ninth LP necessitates two entirely different listening experiences. Gliss Riffer’s soundscapes breathe with a panoramic rush that begs to be played at maximum volume, windows down, wind blowing by. Yet, the arrangements are remarkably dense, stacking layers of synths, bleeps, drums, and bass upon each other that could only be properly experienced through focused earbud exploration. To play too loudly would be to miss the subtleties and to listen too carefully would be to lose the larger sensation. The new-wavey, forward-barreling “Learning to Relax” careens with a rushing, visceral intensity that upon repeated listens reveals a complex mosaic of vocal sampling and tinkling pianos. The similarly conceived and equally gin-fizzy “Unsheathed Wings” and “Mind On Fire” bounce with Deacon’s android-Ian Curtis vocals alternately towering over and completely drowned underneath a myriad of squeaks and demented party horns. Deacon’s occasional designation as “21st century classical music” certainly makes sense in the context of Gliss Riffer – this is the sound of a composer delighting purely in the careful relationships between two, five, or even ten instruments. Every piece has its place in this Pro Tools symphony of sorts.

The downside, of course, of such complex and amelodic arrangements is the slippery slope from complete submersion to completely zoning out. Gliss Riffer’s second half exhibits moments at which its material slips into the disparaging misnomer that some critics may confer upon Deacon’s music – background noise.  Lyrics are a secondary focus here, and even when they can be aurally understood amidst the extensive vocal filtering, they remain thematically baffling (“10,000 eyes and 400 hands and all of my arms are made of the sands”). The appropriately named “Take It to the Max” is an eight-minute slowburner that builds from zippy electronic percussion to a mess of pan-flute and frenzied samples that I could have sworn were the voice of Nicki Minaj. The composition is inventive, but it fails to leave any real impression once the wave has passed. Closer “Steely Blues” fares worse, offering a mess of darkly ambient sounds with no real momentum, only to close with a calming string note that offers its sole saving grace. Even at its friendliest moments, Gliss Riffer can still be alienating and imperfect.

Even if Deacon places greater emphasis on music as an art rather than entertainment, Gliss Riffer is also his most conventionally catchy and dare I say it, poppiest, album. The opening track and first single “Feel the Lightning” will not be introduced on the airwaves anytime soon, but its sing-song vocals, booming bass and drum combination, and general atmosphere of giddy melancholy would not sound out of place in the average dorm room or outdoor party. In its early moments, “When I Was Done Dying” almost sounds like an old country-folk song – almost – before its simple strumming grows awash in psychedelia as Deacon sings a starkly lyrical narrative about giant crabs. Perhaps most affecting is the trip-hoppy “Meme Generator,” which coasts a gradually building wave of split-second vocal samples and soft synths, proving just how beautifully emotional robotic music can be.

The mischievous duality at the heart of this record – noise vs. beauty, grandiosity vs. intimacy, profundity vs. nonsense – should not surprise fans of Deacon’s work, as that notion of duality is central to his catalog. It’s what enables him to craft huge live concert experiences that thrive on the potency of individual participation. It’s what prompted him to endow his previous album of electronic squawks and esoteric sounds with a title as broad, all-encompassing, and Heartland-evocative as America. Deacon’s ninth record will win some new fans by delivering more of his signature ethos, but it will also drive others even further away from his discography for that very same reason. Gliss Riffer offers just enough hooky material to entice you and make you dance, but you still need to work hard to gain even an inkling of understanding into Deacon’s vision. Even after multiple listens, the record promises new details to discover and surprising mysteries to taunt the listener. I, for one, still haven’t the faintest idea what in God’s name a “gliss riffer” is. B