The first steps are always the hardest…
Some bands can take a while to focus their ideas. So it was with Brooklyn’s Blank Dogs. Nowadays, they are a spellbindingly opaque mix of shimmering synthetic textures and spindly guitars, justly receiving increasing recognition for an ever-more sophisticated output. Suffice to say, though, it hasn’t always been that way…
Initially a studio vehicle for Brooklyn underground demigod Mike Sniper, they specialise in minimalist, post-punk informed art-rock. Sniper himself, formerly of punks DC Snipers, has an impressive track record as a fosterer of all things lo-fi and off kilter with the Captured Tracks label, and previously reissued power-pop with Radio Heartbeat. Aspects of all his previous incarnations inform Collected By Itself. Almost militantly anti-commercial, the enigmatic Sniper refused to give details, interviews or pictures about the project until 2009, three years from its inception, and only recently translated it into a live band. In keeping with this ethic, most tracks here barely make it beyond the two-minute mark, and are primarily constructed around a tinny drum machine, repetitive arrangements, sinuous basslines, scratchy distorted guitars, wobbly, ultra-simple synths and a veritable barrage of queasy electronic effects.
This is not to say, however, that the man doesn’t know how to craft a decent tune. Even on the strength of Collected…, a 27-track compilation of unreleased rarities and remastered tracks spanning Blank Dogs’ output between 2006-09, there’s compelling evidence of musical knowledge, ability and craft, and plenty of strong, sweet melodies and instantly effective, gut-punch rock emerging from the murky depths.
It’s this murk that throws up the first barrier to outright enjoyment of Blank Dogs’ early music. The songs themselves are fine, but the production seems to be deliberately focused on bludgeoning the tunes half to death, squalling and screeching over everything discordantly, whilst Sniper himself moans atonally into a busted microphone. Sometimes this works perfectly to create a queasy sense of disorientation, generating a threatening sense of unease. Frequently, though, it simply detracts from the actual song, piling on layers of ooze where the tunes deserve to shine through. It may well be that I’m missing the point somewhat, as it was quite probably Sniper’s intent, but subsequent increases in fidelity have improved their post ’09 output no end.
Putting aside these gripes, however, focussing on the songs themselves at least serves to stem my wellspring of ire. Being a compilation, Collected…was probably always going to be overlong, and quality control can’t help but suffer over its entirety. The better songs here certainly acquit themselves well, though. Drawing from the spindly post-punk of Joy Division, Wire and early Cure, but also the sweet, simple melodicism of new-wave and power-pop-punk, as well as a hefty slab of synth pop to boot, songcraft is well within Sniper’s remit.
The initial brace of tracks provides an enjoyably concise introduction to the musical world of Blank Dogs. Opener ‘Leaving The Light On’ fires up the drum machine instantly, before a bouncing bassline starts hurtling around and a high, clear guitar picks out a handful of notes. Over two minutes, not much happens besides its harmonic two-chord chorus, but its sheer punky drive and vague menace are oddly affecting. Track two, ‘Slow Room!’ is a proper belter, a sped up, mechanised shoegazey harmonic delight, verging on pop, with an exquisitely woozy air about it, fuzzy, indistinct shapes coalescing into a sublime whole. If only it lasted longer than 1 minute 49 seconds… The relentless, choppy ‘Two Months’ keeps things driving onward, it’s zinging synths adding a spacey vibe to the dark punk heft. ‘Before The Hours’ is pumping, two-note synth rock, squelchy low end yielding to scything razorblade guitars. In this opening salvo, however, all the basics of the fledgling Blank Dogs would appear to have been covered.
There’s one thing that seems to stick in mind after this initial brace, and, unfortunately, it’s the vocal treatment. It sounds diabolical. Multi-tracked legions of Sniper uttering croaky, sing-speak incantations distorted beyond all recognition, it’s hard to listen to at best. It’s irrelevant that his voice isn’t exactly of operatic quality, it just might have more of a chance of holding a tune if it weren’t smothered beneath several strata of robotic monotone. The contrast between the music and vocal is such that it can’t help but detract from the tunes, and makes for rather unpleasant listening.
From the rest of ‘Collected…’, very few surprises remain to be gleaned stylistically, but a fair few notable tunes crop up sporadically. ‘Freezing Styles’ is deceptively complex in its own way, woozily psychedelic in a scratching-at-the-cell-wall kind of way. ‘1480 Fox’ is a relentless zombie stomp, a creepy trudge through deep black electronic muck. ‘She’s Violent Tonight’ is pretty in a dizzy, seasick kind of way, echoing its way toward a sense of high drama before being caught up in its own fuzzy miasma. Better still, the spiky new-wave pop of ‘Calling Over’, almost Modern Lovers-esque in its straightforwardness, and probably the most instantly accessible song here. ‘Outside Alarmer’ follows a similar overtly melodic thread. Conversely, the tangled thrash of ‘Waiting’ and the Bunnymen-ish throb of ‘Ages Ago’ both benefit from extra depth, and, in the case of the latter, a more distinct vocal line. ‘Scenes In A New Town’ is quite thrilling Cramps-informed horror-punk, and I defy anyone to listen to it without imagining a surf-guitar lead line over the top. Toward the end, ‘Leaves’ appears, a fully fledged dramatic, deep, dark dirge, showing another side to the Blank Dogs’ trademark gloom.
Still, throughout everything, those damned electronics keep babbling in the foreground, seemingly serving as a deliberate irritant, like the sound of a fly trying to crawl in your ear while a detuned radio covers the motor racing in the background. There’s many moments where the forces of atonality seem to lock the tunes in mortal combat, emerging in a stalemate. It often feels like Sniper was deliberately scuppering any burgeoning ‘pop’ aspects, the wilfulness of self-sabotage damaging the songs rather than simply de-commercialising them.
Overall, I can’t help but feel I’d love many these songs if they were further developed. Alas, though there’s no faulting Mike Sniper for sticking to his guns and ensuring that he’ll never come within a million miles of selling out, the (I’m assuming) deliberate awkwardness of his early production style is often a massive annoyance rather than something that could simply be passed off as a quirk. There’s no denying how prolific he is, and, in that respect, Collected By Itself stands as a fine testament to his work ethic. The problem is, with so much aural punishment to endure to sift out the real gems in this collection, you can’t help but wonder why he bothered releasing it in this format. Condense it down to its strongest tracks, spruce up the production (especially the vocals) and mix out some of those superfluous noises and you’d have one great album, but, as it stands, Collected…is almost physically painful to listen to in its entirety. At least this was only the beginning….
Collected By Itself is out now on Captured Tracks