Secret Band is a self-titled debut album featuring Dance Gavin Dance members Will Swan (guitar), Jon Mess (vocals) and Matt Mingus (drums) that introduces two other musicians, Martin Bianchini (guitar) and Jordan McCoy (bass). As a side project, this album allows the band total creative freedom and they use it to great effect. Fans of Will Swan will instantly recognise his signature funk-inspired guitar noodling, which happily flows through the album, but what hasn’t been heard to this extent before is the heaviness that Swan can generate with his experimental riffs. With Jon Mess as the lone front-man, Secret Band is composed entirely of screamed vocals, which adds further heaviness to the album, making this sound like a cross between Dance Gavin Dance and The Bled.
After hearing Dance Gavin Dance’s debut full-length Downtown Battle Mountain in 2007, I would’ve balked at the idea of enjoying a full album of Mess’ vocals. His screaming sounded weak and had an abrasive tone back then, but now he packs a punch that is impossible to ignore. Secret Band is a testament to the work that Mess has done to improve his voice over the years and he proves without doubt that he’s capable of carrying a band on his own merit. Albums that consist purely of screamed vocals can become monotonous without another tone to cut through the music, but that never becomes an issue here, as Mess delivers a variety of tones, inflections and phrasing to keep the vocals interesting.
Despite there being no clean vocals, Secret Band sounds surprisingly melodic. The guitar riffs and harmonies have a lyrical feel to them, plugging the gaps that the vocals would otherwise fill. Swan’s iconic, funk-infused guitar style shines through, particularly on tracks like “Biblee”, where the lead riff is so jolly it’s impossible to sit still while it plays. This dynamic enables Mess to drive the heaviness of the album forward while the music provides the catchiness. As nice as the melodic elements are, Secret Band comes into its own when it rampages into its heavier moments. The riffing becomes frantic, the bass ecstatic and the drumming almost schizophrenic, while Mess yells his lyrics in a way that gets your blood pumping. These moments often spring from nowhere, as the band transitions between melodic and heavy sections with seamless ease and reckless abandon.
I’d love to see the state of Mingus’ drum heads after the recording session for this album because he gives the kit some serious punishment over the course of the record’s eleven tracks. Mingus has proven himself to be a great drummer on Dance Gavin Dance’s catalogue to date, but on Secret Band he plays with a level of freedom and expression that I haven’t heard from him before. The production of the drums is also excellent and this helps Mingus’ snare drum punctuate the guitar work and allows the accents to compliment this perfectly.
Dance Gavin Dance has always been a creative band, but Secret Band takes this even further. There’s a superb level of energy and charisma throughout the album that genuinely puts a smile on your face. With track names like “Meat Fetish” and “Honey Boo Buschemi,” you get a sense that this album is as much about having fun than anything else, a premise that’s substantiated by Mess’ tongue-in-cheek lyrics, with such gems as: “all my friends know I’m a brat! All my friends know ‘bout my cat!” While it may be energetic and fun, it’s also a triumph of song-writing as well and it’s a treat to hear a group of musicians expressing themselves in such an unconstrained, yet musically accomplished way. I’m desperate to hear what the band does next.