Issue #139: Danse Macabre by The Faint
November 12, 2018
Released On August 21, 2001
Released By Saddle Creek Records
The story of how I came to get into this album starts in 2002, and interestingly enough, it also ends in 2002. In 2002, I was hanging out with (but not yet dating) a girl who was a couple of years older than me. Let’s call her F. We had hit it off almost as soon as we met and it was clear to both of us that we had a lot of chemistry. One of the areas that we made a connection was through music. This was the age of the AOL Instant Messenger Profile which, at least for almost all of the people I know, was a place to curate and advertise your tastes and your whole general vibe. I responded favorably to F’s Taking Back Sunday lyric-filled profile, so she decided to educate me on all of the music she was into. Stay with me — this ends with me getting into this album by The Faint, I swear.
F played me a bunch of pop-punk/emo (the genres were sort of ambiguous — basically the bands that were big in Alternative Press magazine) bands and then one day she decided to play me “Waste Of Paint” by Bright Eyes. I was mesmerized. This was like old school lo-fi Dylan, but new! I was energized and excited by this song, so F pivoted a little and made me copies of some other albums by Saddle Creek bands. I believe she only made me copies of Cursive’s Domestica (a classic), Cursive’s Burst And Bloom, and Danse Macabre by The Faint. Yay! We made it!
While the Cursive and Bright Eyes albums were incredibly interesting to me, the album by The Faint set my imagination on fire. It was full of songs with lyrics that felt lifted from the kind of book I was reading at the time (Chuck Palahniuk, almost exclusively). I’m thinking specifically of the closing track “Ballad Of A Paralysed Citizen,” but there are other elements of violently sudden deaths and violently uneventful lives which felt very familiar, too.
What most interested me though was the idea that this band of kids from Omaha, Nebraska (near where I went to most of elementary school) could create a sound that sounded so foreign. “Europop from Nebraska?!?” was how I kept pitching it to myself and the pitching definitely worked. Listening now, I can hear that these are just folks that liked heavy synths and dance beats, which might have had a European genesis, but this is absolutely an American band.
I think what makes this album great is its passion to making the kind of music they were interested in making alongside a restraint that kept them to a limited number of nine excellent tracks whereas a 15 song album would have felt overblown and overwhelming. It reminds me of my relationship with F (whom i ended up dating for a couple of months before she graduated and then saw for a couple of months after that) which was strong out of the gate, rich in content and passion, and over before it could get stale.
James Anderson (@unabashedjames)
Devoted Docent Of Musical Concepts
Synth-punks relying on the past to propel the future.
My wife and I finally watched Moonlight on Saturday, and aside from being floored by the story, the acting, the writing, and basically every other aspect of the film, we were stopped in our tracks by the soundtrack — particularly the early, non-album Aretha Franklin tune called “One Step Ahead” that appears briefly near the end. I knew it had been sampled, but for the life of me I couldn’t remember which song incorporated it. (The answer is Mos Def’s “Ms. Fat Booty.” “Ass so fat that you could see it from the front,” etc.) Once again, the trusty WhoSampled app saved me from an evening of cursing my failing memory. I decided to keep the WhoSampled party going on Sunday by looking up Danse Macabre, thinking The Faint’s intense rhythms might have made their way into other songs. What I found was a thriving remix ecosystem; every single track on Danse Macabre has been reworked at one point or another, and knowing those alternate takes are out there is a little like being confronted with the red pill/blue pill decision from The Matrix. Maybe you like opening track “Agenda Suicide” but you wish it had a menacing low end that flows underneath the mix like the river of slime in Ghostbusters II. Great news! Jagz Kooner has just the remix for you. Dig the whispered chorus of “Glass Danse” but want to hear it filtered through the encyclopedic sensibilities of one of electronic music’s most prolific legends? Paul Oakenfold has you covered. In many creative fields, colleagues pointing out how you could have done things differently is insulting. In the world of dance music, however, this kind of feedback loop represents high praise. I’ll leave you with one more: If you enjoy the verse sections in “Posed To Death” but are wondering what they’d sound like after spending a summer hanging out with Nine Inch Nails’ “Closer,” I strongly advise you to click this link. You won’t regret it.
Davy Jones (@youhearthat)
Idealistic Seeker Of Neoteric Sounds
It’s not hard to figure out where The Faint want to take listeners’ minds when Danse Macabre starts. The title hints at something morbid or eerie like the thematic direction of issue 122’s Wulfband, but the titular implication doesn’t line up with the sonic building blocks of this album, which are much more in sync with the mechanized and digitized synthesizers of post-punk and nu-wave. Where the darkness creeps into the record is in its song titles and descriptive lyrics (“Agenda Suicide,” “Ballad Of A Paralysed Citizen“). The crux of the message in “Let The Poison Spill From Your Throat” pierced through with particularly eye-opening form, as it starts with the metaphorical imagery of leaking venom and moves secondarily, to the reality of a broken political system that leaves people feeling trapped. Writing in this order is clever, as it grabs attention and intrigue first, making sure to retain ears for informing about the real situation second when you’re really keyed into finding out what the narrative is saying and thus more likely to take in the more serious part of the song, which you can find in the detailed lyrics. Interestingly, my first gut reaction and first thought while playing Danse Macabre was of Russia in earlier times of social change and class transitions. Such a specific line of thought felt perplexing; after all, the style and sound of Todd Fink’s voice projects a more Clash-style English, while Fink himself hails from neither Russia nor England but instead, mid-west Omaha, Nebraska. So what gives? Then it hit me: the idea of being stuck in your life and-or social standing (“The element of progress / That you mention is gone / It de-evolved to something you were headed toward / As I lay to die the things I think / Did i waste my time, I think I did / I worked for life”) had reminded me of Nikolai Gogol’s short story (later to be created into an opera,) “The Nose.” A story written as satire, “The Nose” revolved around a Collegiate Assessor who one day wakes up without his nose and comes to find out his nose has obtained a higher social standing that he himself has. (Yes, the opera features a life sized nose for a character.) The story and opera contain true sentiments of the time but are conveyed using humor, which makes my connective thought not exactly an emotionally relatable one to The Faint’s narratives tackling unrest and social inequality, which do so in very dramatic and disturbing fashion. Still, perhaps having these contrasting emotional pulls served as a positive for this listening experience because the sharp and decisive electronic tones of Danse Macabre combined with such unrelentingly cynical and futile perspectives about the public’s state of affairs, felt overwhelming at times. Though Gogol’s work and The Faint are in no way connected, the takeaway might be that it can serve a person well to have some way to get a breather when diving into something as melodically and lyrically heavy handed as this album. What The Faint wanted to say is worth hearing and feels oddly, and even a touch depressingly, contemporary. However, if getting through the entire album might be so taxing, in trying to speak out against purveyors of social, political, and emotional conflict with such vitriol as a way to get more attention paid to the issues, the band might have ended up cutting off its nose to spite its face.
Kira Grunenberg (@shadowmelody1)
Prolific Sonic Scribe & Unifier
There’s a really dark vibe throughout Danse Macabre that converges at a needle point on “Posed To Death.” I feel like it’s the signature track of the album, and made me think “wow, if Daft Punk are the Tribe Called Quest of the genre, then The Faint must be the Mobb Deep.” It’s a grimy, retro-industrial sound throughout that’ll make you think of INXS and Depeche Mode, but with a much more ominous edge that we would see later on with Nine Inch Nails. Before you bring the torches at me, I feel like NIN is an apt comparison because of the equal mix in live drumming/instrumentation and programmed/sampled material. For instance, there’s “Your Retro Career Melted,” which has all the quirky sounds and upbeat, drum machine rhythms of every Eminem lead single ever. All it’s missing is an ill-advised sexual innuendo aimed at Ariana Grande. I digress. By far, my favorite track has to be the closer, “Ballad Of A Paralysed Citizen.” It’s a fantastic departure from the rest of the album in terms of tempo, featuring some excellent string arrangements, and ironically, perhaps the album’s catchiest hook. I’m interested in reading what my fellow OYR contributors have to say this week because I feel like this record is just too dense to cover in one blurb.
Kellen “J. Clyde” Ford (@jclyde757)
Steadfast Hip-Hop Historian & Creator
Highlighting the maniacal banality of everyday life.
I took a course on Menippean satire in college. I can’t fully explain what it is despite getting an ‘A’ in the class. It’s got something to do with a kind of fiction that mocks or comments on itself as such. I think. Anyway, the grade largely depended on simply reading the novels and discussing them, so that’s how I got the ‘A.’ I enjoyed several of the novels out of my fondness (read: love) for absurdity — in particular, Thomas Pynchon’s The Crying Of Lot 49 and Voltaire’s Candide. The one that stands out the most a decade later, though, is Italo Calvino’s If on a winter’s night a traveler. The book employs the second person throughout (for example, “You walk down the street”). It’s disorienting to read in fiction because your brain — or, at least, mine — is constantly fighting the narrative. Your perspective is perpetually shifting between following the story and being the story. I was always struck by how mentally and emotionally subversive that device is, and it feels sarcastic. And I get the same kinda vibe from Danse Macabre. It’s a deeply paranoid and tense dance record. Its nervous energy is powered by synths that are ghouls and cast shadows and voices in the back of your mind. It’s almost like the album is daring you to dance in order to put out a fire or defuse a bomb. But then you look through the cynical nature of its lyrics (even towards its own genre) and you get the sense that this is dance music as commentary and as sarcasm. Or something. I don’t know that I can fully explain it all, but that didn’t stop me from appreciating it.
Steve Lampiris (@stevenlampiris)
Sure, Let’s Go With That
I never look up the bands we review here until I’ve listened to the album at least once. But I was really tempted to look up The Faint about thirty seconds into “Agenda Suicide” because they sounded so damned familiar. I spent that song, then the next two trying to figure out who they reminded me of, and made a note to tell my best friend she would probably dig this band’s aesthetic. Then “Let The Poison Spill From Your Throat” started and my first thought was “damn, this would be a good driving song.” Then the chorus hits and I’m singing along and have a brief moment where I wonder how I’m singing a new-to-me song, when I realize that I know this song. So I had to listen to it over and over while I connected the dots in my mind. How did I know this song so well without knowing the band, their name not ringing even the tiniest bell? I was going through a mental checklist of the people I knew when this came out, and situations I’d been in where I could possibly have grown so familiar with this song. Every time it started over, I repeated my initial thought of “damn, this would be a good driving song,” and after about five or six listens, it hit me. In 2004/2005, I had a 36 mile (one way) commute to a job that I hated. My shift would end at 9, just when traffic was finally dying down. I’d get out of there as quickly as I could, windows down and radio loud. I only listened to one local indie station, and adored the DJ they had on when I got off work. He played a lot of stuff I already loved, and introduced me to a bunch more I probably would have missed entirely. My drive home was 45 minutes to an hour, so I didn’t always manage to catch his banter, which explains why I never knew The Faint by name… and also missed the fact that he apparently loved Danse Macabre, cause I wound up already knowing the words to three more of the tracks that followed. I have probably ended up listening to the whole thing at least ten times this week (and individual songs many more), so I’m just the tiniest bit mad at myself for not making an effort to track it down ages ago.
50 Foot Pop Queenie
I distinctly remember the first time I was accused of having an “attitude.” It was summer 1981 and I was living on my own in our country house in the Berkshires, working as an assistant baker in a local market. I used to have to open up at 5:00 AM, which meant getting on my putt-putt moped (Puch, rhymes with book!) at about 4:15 AM, which meant going to bed at 9:00 PM. Needless to say, it wasn’t the schedule my body was used to. Sitting in the near-dark, drinking tea, and eating Corn Chex while the Bad Brains cassette aurally adrenalized me through the puffy foam-covered headphones connected to my first-generation Sony Walkman, became the ritualized beginning to my day. For years afterward, I would actually taste Corn Chex in my mouth whenever I played my bright yellow tape of the hardcore classic. So maybe I was occasionally a little… edgy at work, especially toward the people with the most authority, i.e. the owners of the store. What do you expect? I was a 16-year-old punk rock kid from NYC. Now, I always got along great with my “direct report,” the head baker, who was a total sweetheart, a big, bald, bearded bluff of a man baking his way through massage school. But as for the owners, although I had much respect for their immigrant journey from war-torn Lebanon to a successful series of stores (and eventually a national business) in the U.S., they could be real hardasses. They were a married couple and the man was mostly nice, but his wife had something against me from the start. It was not uncommon for there to be tension between the “townies,” or the people that lived up there year round, and us (mostly) summer people. But I was always prepared to work hard and I loved baking, so as long as they owners didn’t impose any stupid rules or regulations, everything was fine. I don’t remember what set me off, but I must have reacted poorly to yet another bureaucratic decision, leading to the wife telling me to “lose the attitude.” She didn’t say I had a bad attitude, just that I had an attitude. This was baffling to me. Now, it’s common to say someone has an attitude, but it was just coming into use in that form back then and it was confusing as heck. But it came to mind again when I was about halfway through my first pass of The Faint’s Danse Macabre and I thought, damn, these guys get a long way just on attitude. In fact, attitude might just be their USP (unique selling proposition, for those who aren’t advertising-theory geeks). Otherwise, what have you got? Some slightly used dance beats glommed onto keyboards chipped off Trent Reznor’s workbench, a bit of dirty fuzz-bass the Virgin Prunes put up for sale after baby turned blue, and vocals that desperately need all the treatments they get to avoid being (ugh) emo. There’s even a hair-metal guitar solo on one song (“The Conductor“). But somehow, it gets over on sheer gusto, panache, guts — in other words, attitude. They even have a song called “Your Retro Career Melted” — fucking hilarious — suggesting they’re totally aware of any potential criticism. And that’s the kind of attitude I can get behind!
Jeremy Shatan (@anearful)
Prescient & Appreciative Musical Omnivore
Luminous light found while willingly exploring desolate sounds and depraved thoughts.
This one’s interesting. I used to hear a ton about this band and this album, 17 years ago when it was brand new and I was a regular poster on Makeoutclub.com. I know, you young kids today need an explanation for what that site even was (short version: super-early profile/social media site, predated Friendster by three years and MySpace by five). It was both owned and populated by kids who’d be hipster indie types today. But back then, the same sorts of kids who are all about Soccer Mommy and, I dunno, Slaughter Beach Dog today were super-stoked on electroclash, synth-heavy postpunk, and sassy noisy post-hardcore (I’m trying really hard not to say screamo, because fuck that term, but those kids back then may very well have used it, so there you go). The Faint appealed to fans of all those offshoots of the hipster crowd that heavily populated Makeoutclub, and I instinctively distrusted all those kids’ instincts. As a result, I avoided not only The Faint’s Dance Macabre but also artists as disparate as Hot Cross, Hot Hot Heat, and Ladytron. I still don’t like most of that stuff, but those feelings are probably irrational; maybe Off Your Radar will provide me with an excuse to put all my mid-’20s resentful-punk-kid distaste for these examples of what I thought of as “bullshit scene music” aside at some point in the future. For now, I’m sticking with this one point of reassessment, Dance Macabre, which I’ve honestly never even heard before. I remember the first couple of Faint EPs, and they were all right, if a good bit closer to Superchunk-plus-synthesizer than this album is. I knew who The Faint appealed to circa 2001 and I made assumptions about what their third full-length sounded like based on those fans. I wasn’t far wrong, either — this album is full of synths and programmed electronic drumming, which I expected, as well as rumbling bass and understated but significant guitars, which I also expected. “Agenda Suicide” starts off the album in pretty much the manner I expected, on a sonic level, but I was surprised to find that The Faint’s song construction style gave them a good bit more resemblance to early-’00s British indie bands like Bloc Party and Editors. I like all those bands, and at their best, I’m surprised to admit that I like the Faint circa 2001 quite a bit as well. The serious dance-party vibes of these tunes give them an obvious club-night appeal, but there’s an anxious uneasiness to their musical mood that makes Dance Macabre just as intriguing in more focused listening sessions. So hey, maybe the hipster kids of the early ’00s weren’t so bad after all. Don’t get me wrong, you don’t have to break out the black hair dye and the asymmetrical haircuts or anything, but you should give this album a listen. It’s worth your while.
Drew Necci (@buzzorhowl)
Insightful Scholar Of The Underground
Every year, we would sink down into the couch cushions, buckets between knees. During the Disney Halloween special, that spectacular spookfest reserved for the most terrifying time of year, my brothers and I would trade candy while the horror reigned on the screen. Because basically the same program ran each year, I would wait in half-terror until the St. John’s cemetery came on. Images of clattering skeletons dancing in top hats and bowties jaunted across the screen to “St. John’s Infirmary,” a tune so spooky I was sure it was written for Disney. Those same gallivanting skeletons immediately leapt to mind upon hearing this week’s selection. Relentless dark waves pulse through the tracks, with far-reaching influences into synth, goth, and new-wave woven together underneath a lyrical sheet particularly suited to Halloween themes. Death pervades the album, from the death dance title to the thematic death around us, the death of creativity and imagination. The album is entertaining, definitely, dancey almost to a fault, and while the tone can be somewhat played out, the beat will keep you going no matter what.
Laura Burroughs (@_thetwors)
Jestful Musical Erudite
Something about the ’80s got lost in the sparkle of glam, glitter, and the toxic fog of excessive hairspray. There was an idea — an emergence of something special. The two worlds of electro-pop and rock and roll began to fuse with bands on the fronts of all sorts of genres. Everything from metal to goth began incorporating more and more elements of the creative breadth that synthesizers, samplers, and drum machines could allow. As the backlash of grunge and the resurgence of punk and DIY forms of music washed that away, few remained to carry the torch for these ideas. Of course, somewhere in the middle of all that, The Dandy Warhols and Econoline Crush stayed the course (credit where credit is due) but by and large, we saw a complete return to the more organic forms of music. Extreme electronic rock and roll faded into the neon shadows of yesteryear. In the early 2000s, with the advent of chillwave, electronic music once again began its occupation of rock and roll and despite attempts by MGMT to bring back tight-fitting foil onesies and glam along with it, we were lucky to have dodged that bullet. We were able to continue to take it seriously. This is pop-rock at its best, a beautiful blend of styles resulting in a record you can dance to and rock to in equal measure. Todd Fink is unapologetically sassy in his approach to vocals. The Faint are a prime example of musicians who seem to exist outside of trends in pop culture and have produced a record which can be seriously appreciated. Dance Macabre is their third record and when it dropped in 2001, it had a huge impact. It stands as a head-nod inducing example of what a bent sawtooth and distorted sine wave can bring to rock music — a genre previously forced to rest solely on the backs of jangly guitar riffs and cowbells. This time around, no hairspray was required to make it stand out.
Darryl Wright (@punksteez)
Lovechild Of The Music & Technology Marriage
It’s shocking to me that this album came out in 2001, yet critics and fans travelled back 15-20 years earlier to describe its sound, awkwardly overlooking the music landscape of the ’90s. Yes, New Wave-tinged synthpop is on strong display here, with the band taking a pop light to the shrouded mystery of electronic sounds and preprogrammed rhythms like the innovators of those sounds did a generation prior. But there’s also a very strong industrial lean to this music that suggests it’s much more influenced by the musical malice of the mid-’90s than the melancholic misery of the ’80s. Sure, the band seems to want more melody and shimmer than your Trent Reznors or Jeff Scheels, but it’s also more accepting of the dark aesthetic than bands like Depeche Mode or New Order were. (Detrimental to my point, I think Joy Division would be a thin, but apt comparison to make here, but people seem to want to throw in New Order more so here we are). This may sound like splitting hairs though — so why am I arguing this point? It’s because as a New Wave/synthpop record, it’s easy to pigeonhole this music , either positively by saying it was a forerunner to the ’80s revival that would overtake the music of the 21st century, or negatively by saying they were just revisiting space already explored and charted. Adding in the industrial slant — which is by no means a stretch when listening to the clanging sounds and speakerbox vocals of “Ballad Of A Paralysed Citizen,” the prodding of “Total Job,” or the straight noise of “The Conductor” — shows that this music is much more than any singular summation you might come up with, and that the band was just as much on to something fresh and unique as they were in refurbishing something beloved. And perhaps that’s the biggest takeaway here — no matter how many sounds or melodies sound familiar, the totality of the record feels new, even today as it did back in 2001.
Doug Nunnally (@musicdoug)
Garrulous Aural Braggart
5’ll Getcha Ten by Cowboy
Chosen By Guest Contributor John Calvin Abney