It should startle absolutely no one that Dope Body songs begin with something getting hit. “It starts out looking for something percussive,” guitarist Zachary Utz says about the song-writing process, speaking by phone late one weekday evening after work. “A lot of the time I’m just looking for something rhythmic.”
That percussive search has led Dope Body to Natural History (Drag City), an expansive distillation of the band’s energy that feels like getting struck with a sable-covered police baton. Over the course of its previous four releases the Baltimore outfit has displayed a considerable skill with the kind of rhythmic blow that comes from blunt force. Anybody who has ever withstood a beating by an unhinged peer or a depressive parent knows the sound, that distant thunderstorm rumble that comes after the skin covering the face numbs and the only thing left is an inner groan. That defiant pulse sounded like a cornered animal on 2009’s Twenty Pound Brick, where songs erupted in roughly two-minute sprints, trapping Utz’s guitar punch and drummer David Jacober’s tumult in the same cramped cage with Andrew Laumann’s throat.
The cage door got left open on 2010’s split release with Orphan, resulting in a bit more breathing room. The trio explored the surroundings only to discover that the cage was sitting on the concrete floor of an old building’s basement. Utz’s guitar textures run from serrated edges to downright crime-scene grime on “Tomahawk” and “Lean,” tracks where Jacober’s pound sounds like it’s trying to escape hatch through the walls. With 2011’s Nupping and the split EP with Child Bite, Dope Body added an adrenalin-spiked speed to the percussive throb, resulting in a primal, if at times unfocused, urgency. Watching the band live was like seeing 2001: A Space Odyssey onstage: Man find club. Man stand upright. Man make noise. Man like.
“In a lot of ways it’s very immature music,” Utz says with a laugh when talking about Dope Body’s beginnings in late 2008, early 2009. Utz and Jacober had been playing together since 2004, when they were in high school together at Mount Saint Joseph, but when they teamed up with local artist Laumann they had never done anything quite so primitive before. In Holy Ghost Party, Utz and Jacober typically display their considerable knack for bucolic, orchestral pop.
“[Dave and I] were always more methodical, let’s write some chords and rehearse—like a student would do,” Utz says. “I have a tendency to try to be really ornate with chords and think I’m going to write this Radiohead progression with all these melodies and scales. This [Dope Body] was all really simple. This was trying to have no thought involved. That’s kind of how it started. Let’s see how hard and fast we can go for two minutes and then take a break.”
That organizing idea smelted a curiously feral organism, taking basic rock DNA and Dr. Moreau recombining it to see how just how unholy the final beast could be. On “Beat,” from the Orphan split release, this approach turned out a disorienting haze of blown-speaker guitar fuzz and migraine-headache snare stabs. Laumann’s howls fight through the distortion fumes like consciousness confronting a morning sun after waking up in an alley. It’s a gritty jolt of no-fi ear damage, the soundtrack of a deviant mind thinking about all the things it’s going to do if it ever summons up the courage to leave the house.
Although the other eight cuts on Natural History were penned during the past seven months, “Beat” was rerecorded for the album, and offers the best window into just how much Dope Body has grown for its Drag City debut. Recent bassist addition John Jones echoes Utz’s guitar buzz, and Jacober’s drum thump is no longer a hot poke but a rib-cage crunch. Laumann’s vocals creep to the fore, and they intentionally ain’t pretty. This “Beat” reveals that the previously merely deviant mind has gone outside, has seen and done some stuff, and has developed a taste for some psychotic shit.
A bit of credit should go to producer J Robbins for the more expansive setting. The Office of Future Plans singer/guitarist has a crisp ear behind the board, and he sounds to have encouraged Dope Body to welcome some spaciousness between its percussive textures. There’s oomph around Jacober’s drum sounds now, which Jones complements nicely and which allows Utz to explore an array of guitar textures. It never goes overboard into Nupping’s effects nuttiness, and it feels more controlled and specific. It’s the difference between fighting in a box and boxing in a ring. The former is all about quick, compact power; the latter rewards the patience of lying in wait before unleashing hell.
“I think J really has a method,” Utz says. “It’s a lot more studied. The drums were the first thing laid down, and we heard them back and were like, ‘This is the sonic quality we’re going for on this album.’”
The band maintains that sonic integrity throughout Natural History, which combines the disintegration rock of U.S. Maple with the where-did-those-come-from? hooks of Meanderthal-era Torche. Cuts like “Twice the Life” and “High Way” stitch a catchy melody out of Utz’s ripped-fabric notes, while “Powder” skips along at a nearly keyboard-y bounce. Throughout, Laumann isn’t only audible but enunciating, becoming more than just another noisy menace in the mix. On album standout “Out of My Mind,” his “when I go out of my mind/ and into your mind/ I take a look around your insides/ and I figure you out” sets up the chorus’ neck-crack snap.
Yet despite Natural History’s relatively lush setting, Dope Body’s music still feels born in the body. “It’s a lot of experimentation,” Utz says of looking for the right guitar sound during song-writing. “That’s been huge with me. I try a lot of things and see what comes out. I might find a sound texture and then add a few notes to give it some sense of harmony. I think a lot of the lack of complexity in the songs gets turned into being as physical as possible with the sounds.”
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