Recommended album: El Cielo by Dredg
If you’re into: Alternative, experimental, progressive, rock
The year is 2002. I am a twelve year old boy flipping through television channels in search of something to entertain me, most likely late at night after finishing some homework that I had put off far too long. I come across an eerie, strange, and slightly disturbing video of an odd-looking puppet in a suit, walking down a dismal road. Music is playing over this scene, and it contains a haunting vocal melody that hovers and drifts above a strong, bass-heavy drum beat. At first I am somewhat turned off by this depressing visual, but for one reason or another, I am transfixed by it. As the video and music continues, I watch with extreme curiosity, as I had never seen or heard anything like this before. When it finishes, I do not feel as though I had just watched another music video. For the first time, I feel as though I had just witnessed a work of art. The song was “Same Ol’ Road” by the California-based band, Dredg.
At the time, it was still too different for me to fully grasp, perhaps because I was not old enough to really appreciate it. Keep in mind, this was during the years when rap and pop-punk ruled the United States, so I was used to watching music videos of New Found Glory, Eminem, and Avril Lavigne. While I did not immediately like it, I was still compelled to obtain the song, which I may or may not have done through the use of a certain music sharing program that was popular at the time. The song remained on one of my music mix CD’s for a few years, and when I was about fifteen years old, I decided to check out what else the band had to offer. I believe I was in a music store in the mall when I shuffled through the many rows of CD’s in search for Dredg. The only album they had was “Catch Without Arms”, which did not contain “Same Ol’ Road”, but I bought it anyway. I did very much enjoy that album, and still do. However, I still wanted to find the album that had that first song I heard three years prior. After doing a little research online, I found that the album I was looking for was “El Cielo”. Since I couldn’t find it in stores and online shopping was not much of a reality for me at that point, I put it on my Christmas list. When the holiday finally came around, I was happy to find it under the tree. I went downstairs to my room, painstakingly unwrapped the annoying plastic wrapper around the CD case, then popped the disc into my CD player. For the next 57 minutes, I stood by the speakers, soaking in each and every song.
“Lucid, you control it, your body’s asleep, but your mind is awake” -Dredg, “Scissor Lock”
I learned that this was a concept album dealing with lucid dreams and the phenomenon of sleep paralysis. The booklet that came with the CD was filled with images of letters from people talking about how they, too, often suffer from sleep paralysis, and describe their frightening experiences of hearing things and being unable to move as they are half awake and half asleep. The whole thing was apparently inspired and influenced by this Dali painting:
The first track is titled “Brushstroke: dcbtfoabaaposba”, which is an acronym for the very long title of the inspiring Dali painting. Also, according to the Wikipedia article for the album, the Japanese words found in the song “The Canyon Behind Her” translate to:
“This album was inspired by a painting titled ‘Dream Caused By the Flight of a Bee Around a Pomegranate One Second Before Awakening’. It is recommended that you view this painting as you listen to El Cielo. It is as if one stimulus awakens other senses. In other words, it’s about drawing music.”
This is an album best listened to with shuffle off. Each song flows perfectly into the next song, creating an almost continuous flow of music. The “Brushstroke: ” tracks are short, transitional interlude snippets, used to present a feeling of movement from one track to the next, while also bringing back subtle motifs to further enhance the consistency of theme throughout. This is one of my favorite aspects of this album. Unlike a large portion of modern music, Dredg did not focus on releasing a single hit, or an album that was full of stand-alone, radio-ready songs. Instead, they worked towards creating an album that can only really be appreciated as a whole, when played in a particular order, and that is something I very much respect. That is not to say that every album in the world should be like that, as there are plenty of albums I love that are filled with stand-alone, radio-ready songs, but in my opinion this takes things to an entirely different level.
The sounds and instruments you hear will keep you on your toes. Whether it is the spine-tingling shriek of a violin (check out the end of “Brushstroke: A Walk In the Park”), the sound of a brush scraping against a canvas (found on the opening track), the beating of tribal drums beneath female chanting vocals and a tremolo mandolin (“Brushstroke: An Elephant in the Delta Waves”), or a saxophone with heavy delay and reverberation making sounds reminiscent of an elephant’s trumpet-like call (“Whoa is Me”), you will most likely hear something you haven’t ever heard before in a rock album.
The guitar playing by Mark Engles is very tremolo heavy, usually clean and reverberated for the verses and distorted yet crisp in the choruses. The tone and style of playing helps give the songs a lush, full sound, while not bashing you over the head with twenty distorted guitars. The focus is much more on quality than it is quantity, and the written parts for the guitar provide texture rather than brain-melting licks (though I do love me some brain-melting licks, this album just doesn’t require them).
Gavin Hayes, the lead singer, lays down clear, baritone vocals practically fit for a Broadway musical. While I have not intently listened to each song to pick out his full range, he can be heard singing as low as a B2 in “Scissor Lock”, as well as as high as a G4 in songs such as “Of the Room” and “Same Ol’ Road”. He also appears to use some falsetto to hit higher notes in songs such as “Sorry But It’s Over” and “Same Ol’ Road”. The album even finishes off with a dramatic vocal harmony at the end of “The Canyon Behind Her”, complete with beautiful suspensions and smooth movement from one chord to the next. I am not sure whether it is all Gavin, or if any of it has been doctored, but it sounds to me like the parts for the harmony go as low as an E1 and as high as an F#4.
The drummer, Dino Campanella, and the bassist, Drew Roulette, work together to form the backbone of each song, and one of my favorite aspects of the album. Dino’s drumming is tight, rhythmic, unique, and very, very groovy (just listen to the cymbal play in the verses in “Of the Room”). Drew’s bass playing fits right in, locking up with the kick drum so perfectly that you can practically feel a thud in your chest every time it happens (listen to the opening of “Same Ol’ Road” with a nice pair of speakers and a decent amount of volume and you’ll see what I mean, or “Triangle” from about a minute and fifteen seconds in to the rest of the song). Together they are the foundation of the album.
Each song contains lyrics that play with the theme of the album. They are poetic, symbolic, imaginative, thoughtful, and philosophical. They often do not rhyme and are sometimes sung in a loose rhythm that approaches rubato (such as the first verse of “Sanzen”). Check out this excerpt from “Same Ol’ Road”:
“All you need is a modest house in a modest neighborhood
In a modest town where honest people dwell
Making the cleanest energy for the greenest plants to grow
The richest soil that is drenched with the freshest rain
Then you should sit in your backyard
Watch clouds peak over the tallest mountain tops
Because they unveil honest opinions about the stars”
-Dredg, “Same Ol’ Road”
In the end, this album is a unique and fantastic experience for those who are into alternative rock. I realize that this is certainly not a new release, but the point of this post is to expose it to people that may not have heard of it before. Dredg has since come out with new material and they play and experiment with different sounds and feels for each, some more dramatically different than others (their most recent release to date, “Chuckles and Mr. Squeezy” is the clearest change in overall sound and has sparked quite a bit of discussion amongst fans). I do like their newer stuff, as well as their older stuff (“Lietmotif” is pretty damn awesome), but “El Cielo” just holds a special place in my heart, either due to nostalgia or just the overall feel and concept. It certainly isn’t for everyone, but whether you are an alt-rock fanatic or someone trying to broaden their spectrum of musical taste, do yourself a favor and at least give it a listen.