In my experience, there are two kinds of people; the ones that love The Dillinger Escape Plan, and the ones that don’t really get what all the fuss is about. Among the former group, there are those who say that they peaked early and have been cruising since Under the Running Board or 2002’s brilliantly strange Mike Patton collaboration Irony is a Dead Scene. These fans will claim that, after one of these two albums, the band either stopped being abrasive enough or stopped being inventive. In scientific circles, we tend to call sentiments like these “Wrong.” In reality, the zenith of the world’s most beloved mathcore band came in 2004, with a bold and bold-faced album named Miss Machine.
This album not only introduced the world to the tree-armed madman that is Greg Puciato, but ushered in the current era of incredibly diverse, but still abrasive and flabbergasting DEP material. It showed us that the band’s revolving-door lineup of misfit musicians could not only shred, but groove and croon on par with any band out there and spoke volumes of Ben Weinman’s growing compositional talent. It’s still technical and precise, but in contrast to the band’s previous work, immensely experimental and its intrepid denial of genre lines is made somehow sensible and inviting because of its transcendentally excellent writing and performance. And the album isn’t just a landmark for the band, it’s a staple for fans and an album that I have a very personal connection with.
Back when I was a wee child, I heard Meshuggah fans tell of the wonders of a band completely unlike, yet somehow closely allied to, the Swedish experimental metal legends. I decided to investigate. I listened to a bunch of songs and didn’t get it. Obviously there was a lot going on with this band, but it didn’t click with me, it didn’t feel right, and I gave up on it. Then, by chance, “Phone Home” stumbled into my eardrums. I was smitten.
As “Phone Home”s grinding smolder slowly builds tension, Greg Puciato whisper-sings over minimalist drumming and an anxious guitar line. When the string snaps, there’s time to draw a single breath before the song’s monumental chorus takes hold. And after the shock subsides everything has grown louder, more intense, more menacing, and he’s not singing but yelling now, and strain is beginning to show. And finally, after one more chorus, the song combusts – Puciato is screaming full force and every instrument is both cowering from the singer and echoing the rabid frustration of his lyrics.
This four minute crescendo continues what the opening duo of “Pansonic Youth” and the showstopping “Sunshine the Werewolf” started from the first few seconds of the album; the subtle reinvention of The Dillinger Escape Plan as a disturbingly human musical unit. Puciato brought to the band the incredible vocal diversity that their music always begged for without the Dadaist lyrics and looney-tunes lip-flapping of Mike Patton. Paired with the heavy industrial influence of the album and the most focused and in my opinion, most effective, songwriting the band has ever brought to the table, the album is breathtaking. Every moment bleeds intelligence and emotion, from the crooning of “We are the Storm” to the heavy atmosphere, gigantic contrast, and absolute power of “Sunshine the Werewolf,” which in concert is often quite appropriately punctuated by Greg Puciato jumping off of a large object onto someone’s face. It’s too good for hyperbole.
Take, for instance, “Baby’s First Coffin.” Anyone making the argument that DEP sold out or forgot their roots will be quickly and soundly silenced by the song’s continuously reinvented 15/8 hook and hideous ending, either of which would have fit soundly alongside “43% Burnt” or “4th Grade Dropout.” But unlike previous offerings, in line with the tried and true insanity of these riffs is melody, intrigue and genuinely human ennui that takes over the second half of the album. The horrifyingly clean and catchy “Unretrofied” is not only honest, but incredibly self-effacing, confronting the idea of “selling out” and wasting away forgotten in suburban insipidness. By in turn embodying (in both the structure and the chorus’s tone) and subverting (in the lyrics and the tone of the verses) exactly the vapid drabness that the band rebels against, the song becomes not just a catchy tune or a collection of melodies and riffs, but a truly evocative and disturbingly prescient commentary that over my years has often hit a little too close to home.
It’s doubtful that Miss Machine will happen again. An album like this is something of a unicorn or, perhaps more appropriately in this situation, a chimaera; a rare creature whose sightings are few and becomes more and more mythical with each passing year. As talented and excellent as The Dillinger Escape Plan continues to be, I don’t think they’ll ever become the storm that they were in 2004 again, and maybe it’s for the better, because perhaps that makes Miss Machine’s perfection even more obvious. What we can all be sure of, though, is that the fate that the band saw over their shoulder in “Unretrofied” has been put far behind them. They are not a hiccup in the throat of hardcore, or a flash in metal’s considerably blackened pan, but a creative force to be reckoned with and a spectacularly committed and extreme musical act whose recordings are brilliant and whose live shows are the stuff of legend. In the end, they have never faked it, and never left anything for a new song, and have always left everything on the table. It’s just that this one time, the table was a bit bigger than it would ever be again.