Album Review: the Dillinger Escape Plan – Calculating Infinity

Calculating InfinityI’ll admit that I’m a pretty obsessive person. Whenever something catches my interest, I have to grab hold of it, pull it apart and examine it down to the last detail, often for months at a time before moving on to something else. At the minute, I’m pretty obsessed with the seminal “mathcore” group The Dillinger Escape Plan, a band that has gained notoriety in underground rock and metal circles for their spastic, brutal yet fiercely intelligent sound. Coupled with this fact, the band is about to return to the forefront of the music scene with their eagerly anticipated 5th LP release One of Us is the Killer later this month so I thought, in celebration, I’d go back and look at one of the albums that made them so special and relevant in the first place.

The Dillinger Escape Plan is one of, if not the most important and influential bands within the mathcore genre, a particularly cacophonous subspecies of hardcore characterised by dissonant chord progressions and, crucially, highly irregular rhythmic and time signature changes. The band’s origins can be traced back to 1997, when the band’s original line-up, including guitarist Ben Weinman, vocalist Dimitri Minakakis, bassist Adam Doll and drummer Chris Pennie released a self titled EP and began to tour the U.S. They soon became notorious for their chaotic and even violent live shows, a trait that remains with the band to this day, with respective members throwing themselves over equipment and audience members, scaling stage rigging and sometimes even physically injuring themselves whilst playing. A second EP with added guitarist John Fulton, Under the Running Board, followed a year later and showcased a considerably more experimental and complex musical style. This release pretty much set the stakes for the Dillinger Escape Plan’s signature sound and along with the eventual replacement of Fulton with guitarist Brian Benoit, served as the precursor to their first full length LP, Calculating Infinity.

You should probably prepare yourself physically and mentally before listening to this album for the first time. When pressing play on opening track ‘Sugar Coated Sour’, you are smacked in the face from the word go. Before getting the chance to blink an atonal, rhythmically contorted tapping harmony between Weinman and Benoit is ripped apart by Minakakis’ furious and agonised screaming, underlined by a  barrage of diminished chords and Pennie’s stunningly original drumming. 40 seconds in you’re given a slight rebate in the form of an atonal guitar break before the band shoves your face back in the water with a livid 7/4 breakdown that poses the risk of leaving you with a few broken ribs should you ever get to see it performed live.

‘Sugar Coated Sour’ is the quintessential sound of the Dillinger Escape plan, before your brain has amassed even the slightest clue of what is actually going on, the band has ripped your face off. The intensity certainly doesn’t give up from here, track two ‘43% Burnt’ remains one of the group’s single finest hours: beginning with a riff probably best likened to the act of throwing a chainsaw into a wood chipper, Dimitri then axes down the bedroom door to tell you about how pissed off he is. The instrumental and compositional dexterity within this one track reaches almost absurd heights, I can’t think of many other rock or metal songs that shove so many brilliant musical motifs into such a short space of time: the explosion of sweep picking runs just shy of one minute in, the way Ben and Brian’s guitars ricochet off one another when Dimitri screams “take your medicine like a champ…” and the utterly mind bending middle section that I still can’t get my head around. There’s no way I would be able to pick out a single favourite riff from this track, they’re just all too brilliant.

The mood of Calculating Infinity generally alternates between two poles: a level of violence that would make your neighbours call the police and a brooding, unsettling ambience, the latter largely encapsulated by 3 interlude tracks that serve to complement and emphasise the aural chaos of the album’s “proper” songs. Within a strongly defined sonic framework the Dillinger Escape Plan manages to trash out a mind bogglingly huge number of different riffs, sections and rhythmic changes, as a musician what really blows my mind about this album is how much there is to memorise when trying to play any of the songs. If you were completely ignorant of how music is actually put together, you would probably deride this album as random noise, yet nothing could be further from the truth, Calculating Infinity is a tour de force of painstakingly calculated compositional moves, listen to the way the drum interlude of ‘Weekend Sex Change’ segues into the closer ‘Variations on a Cocktail Dress’, the tapping sections of ‘Clip the Apex… Accept Instruction’ which sound like they could only be vomited out of some crazy computer algorithm, never mind played by human beings and the whole 2nd half of ‘4th Grade Dropout’. The latter track is one of the few instances on the album in which the band manages stay inside a regular 4/4 time signature for a prolonged amount of time, yet somehow, manages to become one of the heaviest, most oppressive pieces of music I’ve ever heard.

Calculating Infinity is the last of all the albums the Dillinger Escape Plan has released so far that I came round to personally; it’s a difficult and demanding piece of music that certainly doesn’t lend itself to you on the first listen, but is totally worth the effort. I guess some of criticisms that can be levelled at the album would be the generally unvarying mood beyond “really, really angry” along with the relative monotony of Dimitri Minakakis’ vocal delivery (though, to be honest, these criticisms can be directed at hardcore in general). Beyond here, the band would be go through further line-up changes still with Minakakis amicably departing from the band to be eventually replaced by the technically versatile and rather muscle bound Greg Puciato and both Adam Doll and Brian Benoit unfortunately sustaining serious injuries leaving them unable to perform. The band’s subsequent releases would experiment with a broader range of stylistic influences, more orchestrated production and even *shock, horror* actual hooks and melodies to the slight detriment of Calculating Infinity’s mind-blowing technical adeptness. Consequently, there seems to be an opinion amongst some sections of the internet that this one album is the absolute final word in mathcore and the only album by the Dillinger Escape Plan actually worth listening to. As usual, I’d say anyone who rejects the band’s later albums on these reasons alone, is seriously missing out.

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