Dilly Dally - Heaven
Sep 14, 2018
As far as music video concepts go, digging up the bodies of your lifeless bandmates as a visual metaphor for your return from the brink of permanent disbandment, could be deemed a little too on the nose. However, that’s exactly what Dilly Dally went for to accompany advance single and sophomore album opener, ‘I Feel Free.’ It ties in perfectly with the narrative being presented by guitarist/vocalist, Katie Monks, and her bandmates, as they do their rounds of the press circuit.

After being chewed up and spat out by the hype machine surrounding their 2015 debut album, Sore - which brilliantly skewered the male gaze and perceptions of feminine desire, whilst drawing more than favourable comparisons to 90s alt-rock and grunge linchpins, Pixies, Hole and Nirvana - Dilly Dally exhausted themselves touring the record. They nearly fell apart as a result of interpersonal tensions, “dark energy,” and the pressure cooker intensity of a life spent perpetually on the road; all around the same time that America was lurching into its waking Trumpian nightmare. It took Monks cutting herself off from her bandmates (and social media), writing songs alone for six months, and finding her way towards positive thinking through meditation, for the band to finally reassemble and record their highly anticipated follow-up, Heaven.

Given what the band has been through (let alone the passing of three years), it comes as no surprise that their second album marks a considerable change for the band. It’s telling that in the aforementioned video for ‘I Feel Free,’ Monks’ desperate attempts to revive lead guitarist, Liz Ball, bassist, Jimmy Tony, and drummer, Benjamin Reinhartz, do in fact, contrary to expectations, fail. The interpolation of footage of the band performing, during the song’s cacophonous, triumphant, shoegaze-y climax, is drenched in overexposure, the members all dressed in white; a clear indication that these are glimpses of an idealised afterlife. Monks herself has envisioned the songs on the new album as being played by them after they’re dead, as if they're heaven’s house band.

This notion of the band as being dead (or undead?) becomes increasingly pertinent as the album goes on. Despite being loaded with messages of empowerment, hope and positivity, Heaven is an album suffused with a sense of deathliness. Where most of the songs on Sore could have happily slotted into an indie rock fan’s party playlist (‘Purple Rage’ may have raged, but it was hella fun), the songs on Heaven would arguably be too much of a vibe killer.

In and of itself, this is not a bad thing. It’s just a different record, made by a band that’s in a very different mental state. The most obvious change, on a musical level, is with respect to tempo. Where the majority of Sore’s songs were dragged along at a fair clip by Tony and Reinhartz’s forceful rhythm section, songs like ‘Doom,’ ‘Believe,’ ‘Marijuana,’ and ‘Bad Biology’ plod and lurch in a leaden, zombie-fied state, vacillating between creeping, near-whispered verses and immense, face-melting riffing, taking the quiet-loud dynamic of 90s guitar rock to its logical extreme. Even the lead singles (and bona-fide instant alt-rock classics), ‘I Feel Free’ and ‘Sober Motel,’ sound like they ought to be played about 50% faster. Listen to both at 1.5x speed on YouTube and you’ll hear how they could have slipped in to the Sore tracklisting without raising the slightest suspicion.

Monks has cited the influence of doom metal on the band’s previously more grunge-pop sound for this album. The aptly named second track, ‘Doom,’ is the first clear example of this. Funereal drums pound as Monks intones, “If I make it.” Distorted guitars hit like a shipping pallet of bricks being dropped in slow motion, before breaking gloriously into a melodic chorus of very un-doom, positive reinforcement:

“Remember who you are
And where you’re gonna be
What’s inside you
Is sacred”

That seemingly incongruous juxtaposition of Positive Thinking poster-fodder and monolithically heavy guitar workouts continues on ‘Believe’, possibly the most sinister sounding self-empowerment anthem this critic has ever heard. Monks has justified this aesthetic choice by stating that in order to help someone through dark times, as this album clearly sets out to do, you have to meet them halfway, to acknowledge the darkness they’re experiencing. Hence the tenor of the music.

Relying on a slower build than ‘Doom,’ Ball builds tension on ‘Believe’ with a creepily twisting and chiming guitar lead during the verses. “I want to know your weaknesses/Show me what’s inside your head/I want to see what holds you back,” Monks whispers, possibly to herself, or possibly taking on the role of the listener imploring the artist to bare their psyche. There’s a quasi-chorus where the volume is briefly turned up and, lyrically, self-belief is held up as the only thing that really matters. And then, the band reins everything back in, only to pull the oldest trick in the alt-rock playbook by having Reinhartz gradually pound his kick-drum and toms louder and louder in anticipation of a raucous crescendo. It’s thoroughly predictable, but it doesn’t make the visceral explosion that follows any less thrilling.

Dilly Dally are, above all else, a band that understand the transcendent potential of guitar noise, and they wield it expertly here, as well as on the post-rock-esque screech that sees out ‘Sorry Ur Mad’, the pounding relentlessness of ‘Bad Biology’’s denouement, or the churning, triumphant squall of ‘I Feel Free.’ The production work by erstwhile Elliott Smith and Beck producer, Rob Schnapf, who had previously mixed Sore, captures the band in all their rough-hewn imperfection, but also gives them the muscular heft of the doom metal and stoner rock records that inspired them. The hallmarks of Dilly Dally’s sound are still in place: that driving, clattering, unshowy rhythm section, those inventive guitar leads by Liz Ball, which at times recall Nick Zinner’s work with the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, and, of course, Monks’ scorched larynx vocals; equal parts Courtney Love and Frank Black on their debut, but drawing more prominently on a shoegaze-y breathiness on Heaven. Those numerous moments where Monks lets loose one of her throat-shredding screams still feels like watching a firework shoot into the night sky before the spectacular, technicolour explosion of crashing cymbals and blooming guitars. And yet, revisiting Sore in light of this new record raises some further interesting points of contrast, beyond the trifling matter of tempo.

For one, the songwriting on Heaven is, generally speaking, noticeably less dynamic than on Sore, where the individual sections of songs rolled into each other smoothly and satisfyingly. On Heaven, the reliance on jarring shifts between quiet and loud passages does begin to feel a touch overused, even over the album’s relatively short runtime. But, that’s because Sore was essentially a pop record, dressed up with flannel, guitar distortion and primal screaming, whilst Heaven is something else, something deeper and darker, more imposing and inscrutable, like the ocean that Monks frequently refers to in her lyrics.

The songs for Heaven were written following a significant personal (and interpersonal) crisis, and initially existed only as fragments, sketches, drones and noise-beds, before the rest of the band was brought in to add structure. This goes some way towards explaining the album’s aesthetic, which often relies on sheer awesomeness of sound to create impressionistic moments that serve as the de facto “hooks,” a function previously performed by catchy choruses and sticky refrains. Take ‘Marijuana,’ for example: sure, it comes crashing out of the gate, with Pumpkins-esque feedback squeaks accenting the perfectly serviceable stoner-rock riffing. But it’s the moment when the noise falls away and Monks’ falsetto floats beautifully above strummed, plaintive chords that makes the song memorable. It’s like you’re riding a bike and, just for a second, you close your eyes and let go of the handlebars. For a fleeting moment, you feel alive, you feel free. Only for a ten tonne truck to take you out at the junction you didn’t see, as those drums and guitars come crashing in again.

‘Marijuana’ is about using the drug to combat feelings of anxiety, and looking inward for discernible truths when the outside world is proving itself to be far from stable and less than trustworthy. As the song’s structure and dynamics make clear, the respite is brief, the reality brutally hard-hitting. This idea of escaping reality or, alternately, being forced to face it head-on, is key to Heaven. The queer tragic fantasy narrative of ‘Bad Biology’ sees a girl who’s bad at being a girl and a boy who’s bad at being a boy cast off their physical bodies, whilst ‘Sober Motel’ unflinchingly portrays the sensation of being confronted with real feelings during a period of sobriety: Monks and Ball combine their efforts to mimic the sound of her “soul screeching in.” So that’s what those skysplitting screams represent.

And what greater, more comforting escape from the cold, hard reality of our lives on earth is there than the notion of heaven itself? The closing title track features Monks’ most poignant lyrics over a loping, shimmering instrumental that stands out as the album’s most consistently bright, and most conventionally “indie-rock” cut (which in itself makes it feel like an escape from the pummeling violence of what has preceded it). “Sleeping with my best friend/And don’t it feel like heaven,” she sings. “I could live forever/Underneath your covers.” Love is a safe harbour, an insular bubble of happiness and a facilitator of denial. After all, relationships are an escape too. You know, until they in turn become something that needs escaping from.
Sep 14, 2018
Despite its wistful tone, ‘Heaven’ (the song) features a troubling, repeated refrain of “the darkness feels like it’s chasing me;” a reminder that for Monks, and the many listeners who will relate to her and her band's songwriting (this writer included), even the best of times, when our self-belief is at its highest and it all feels like heaven, are often blighted by an encroaching darkness, be it depression, anxiety, or even, ultimately, the spectre of mortality.
Sep 14, 2018
This is the contradiction at the heart of Heaven: that deeply empathic acknowledgment of the darkness that chases us coupled with messages of positivity to help us keep running, keep moving forward, and stay ahead of that same darkness. More so than the volume of the guitars or drums, or the feral power of Monks’ screams, it's this that makes Heaven feel so damn heavy.
Sep 18, 2018
review of the year. great work, thank you for this.
Sep 18, 2018
Exceptional review.
Sep 20, 2018
Thanks JohnLouisHoward and daFigz. Appreciate it
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