Culture & Conversation

From Nü-metal to Nü-arena Rock

California’s dredg may be the best band you’ve not yet heard of. The quartet, consisting of vocalist Gavin Hayes, guitarist Mark Engles, bassist Drew Roulette and drummer Dino Campanella, have shown consistent technical growth with every one of their recordings, dating back to their first EP in 1996. But it’s their artistry, on display in their songwriting, visual art, and live performances, that is the best mark of their growing talent.

dredg are a band that treats their music as art, and it shows in their beautifully designed liner notes — their debut, 1998’s Leitmotif, came packaged with a short story that complemented the album’s narrative, and the art for 2005’s Catch Without Arms was full of bassist Roulette’s paintings of alien-like creatures — and their live shows: when I last saw the band, their stage was beautifully adorned with trees, art and lights.

dredg’s sound has evolved drastically over their tenure as a band. Their early EPs (which sometimes pop up on eBay) display a strong rhythm section fronted by uninspired nü-metal guitar work and (badly) growled vocals that would not sound out of place coming out of the garage across the street circa 1998. Their first full-length, Leitmotif, shows an impossible amount of growth, as guitarist Engles has found his own unique sound, defined by complex distorted chords and shimmering reverb and delay. Hayes comes into his own on their second album, 2002’s El Cielo, finally abandoning the growl once and for all in favour of a soaring tenor. Years of screaming have thankfully not affected his pitch or range, the latter of which seems to expand with each album.

If faced with the classic hypothetical desert-island-CD scenario, El Cielo would undoubtedly be one of my first picks to accompany me in the baking sun. Loosely inspired by a Salvador Dali painting, the album is a perfect storm of concept, musicianship and execution. Like the best records, each song sounds better in the context of the album rather than in parts. The use of instrumentals to segue between songs may confound the iPod generation, but it undoubtedly makes for a richer experience. Their follow-up, Catch Without Arms, abandoned the density of El Cielo for a more commercial sheen, but still didn’t compromise the band’s vision.

Having failed to achieve commercial success with their third and most commercial record, their label (Interscope) dropped the band, forcing dredg to release their latest, The Pariah, the Parrot, the Delusion, on their own independent label. With artistic freedom presumably reinstated, dredg delivered a concept-driven, 18-track album with 10 songs and 8 shorter tracks that act as instrumental segues or brief musical snapshots.

Disappointingly, the reliance on these instrumentals and shorter mini-songs tends to drain the album of its momentum in a way that didn’t negatively affect their earlier work. While the whole still flows with the elegance of a Dark Side of the Moon, the songs themselves are not as strong as those on their previous albums. The standouts are “Ireland,” whose hopeful melody recalls that of Catch Without Arms’ closing track, “Saviour,” which blends guitar work characteristic of Engles atop with a fuzzed-out bass groove, and the six minute-plus “Quotes,” whose tempo gracefully slows in the chorus to allow for epic drum fills and truly beautiful vocal harmonies courtesy of Hayes.

If the album fails to completely satisfy in headphones, I have no doubt that all musical palettes would be sated live. Songs like “I Don’t Know,” “Cartoon Showroom” and the aforementioned “Quotes” epitomize the band’s transition from a nü-metal sound to one that recalls the nü-arena rock, as exemplified by bands like U2 and Coldplay. It’s a sound best heard in the presence of fog machines and stage lights.

dredg’s latest CD The Pariah, the Parrot, the Delusion is in stores now. For a sample of what dredg can do, go to their web site.

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