To make sense of how Gang Gang Dance arrived at Eye Contact, it’s probably best to start with “House Jam.” That revelatory highlight from 2008′s Saint Dymphna, blending the spooky dance sound of The Knife with the heroic art-pop of Kate Bush, revealed a side of the band previous efforts scarcely hinted at, let alone fully indulged. This ever-evolving, stylistically defiant band, whose free-form beginnings existed well outside the conventions of pop songwriting, had more or less written a hit. It wasn’t a single, and the armchair A&R guy in me never understood why they didn’t market the hell out of such a glorious piece of pop splendor. But Gang Gang Dance has never done anything in a conventional manner.
Arguable missed opportunities aside, “House Jam” signaled an even bigger role in the evolution of the band than might have been completely apparent at the time. Where that song was a melodic and highly catchy island on an album of off-kilter grooves and exercises in ambient sexiness, the band’s new album, Eye Contact, instead puts a greater emphasis on accessibility, hooks and honest-to-goodness songs. As with the band’s previous albums, Eye Contact comprises a sprawling and cohesive whole, but more than ever, they’ve constructed an album in which each individual part can be easily separated and enjoyed on its own.
Further reinforcing their atypical modus operandi, Gang Gang Dance first introduced the album earlier this year by releasing the 11-minute opener, “Glass Jar.” As a teaser, it’s a hell of a lot to take in, with synths, cymbals, chimes and various other effects swirling underneath bits of spoken word, the phrase “It’s everything time!” in particular standing out as a declaration to the listener of what’s to come. After about four minutes, that cosmic, formless ether congeals into a rhythmic, melodic space jam. And from there, Gang Gang Dance takes command of yet another amazing, unconventional pop standout.
Overwhelming though “Glass Jar” may be at 11 minutes long, the rest of Eye Contact is no less dense or sprawling, their five- or six-minute pop songs often seem to contain just as many ideas or elements. But more than ever, those numerous elements take a disciplined, streamlined formation, seducing the listener with an immersive atmosphere rather than the more obtuse, improvisational shapes they may have once taken. After a spliced-up sample of a woman speaking Chinese, “Chinese High” soars into a throbbing, albeit dreamy dance-pop number, maintaining the arty intensity the band is known for, while ushering in dubby grooves. Yet “Adult Goth” is even more direct, its name mirroring the song’s sound, which blends Cure-like guitar riffs with eerie electro a la The Knife. And new single “MindKilla” evolves in similar formation to “Glass Jar,” but in more compact form. In less than a minute, the song wakes up from shapeless, primordial fumes to one of the most direct, high-intensity grooves the band has ever pumped out.
Eye Contact is not without its moodier moments, however, as the album’s second half most explicitly displays. With Hot Chip’s Alexis Taylor providing guest vocals, the band slinks into sexy mid-’90s R&B territory, filtered through their own bizarro kaleidoscope. “Sacer,” dedicated to deceased artist Dash Snow, initially signifies an explosive quality with its snapping drum opening, but eases into a more ethereal, pretty realm instead. Yet Gang Gang Dance save one of the album’s highest peaks for the very end with “Thru and Thru,” an eerie, exotic masterpiece that most strongly blends the band’s Far Eastern and North African influences with their more propulsive and immediate electronic pop tendencies.
There’s so much happening on Eye Contact that the three instrumental interludes provided are often a necessary breather from the massive feats occurring on either side of them. While Gang Gang Dance has followed their more melodic and dance-friendly impulses on this album, they haven’t by any means stripped back their weighty and dense arrangements. That said, the sheer amount of ear candy provided is only part of the reward for continuing to embark up on this journey. The band may never fully embrace “pop” as we know it, but on this album, their version of it is something far more interesting.