Danse Macabre: Duty Now, For the Present
Faint, the. Omaha, NE: Saddle Creek, 2001. ASIN: B00005NF1H.
"I don't want to regret what I did - and work for life." - The Faint
"If I cannot dance I want no part in your revolution." - Emma Goldman
Danse Macabre, the latest effort from The Faint, is a tighter and somewhat darker continuation of the post-punk synth rock their first full length album, Media, referred to in passing and 1999's Blank-Wave Arcade brought to the fore. The album combines urgent, carpe diem lyrics (see "Agenda Suicide" and "Glass Danse") with dark, pulsing synthesizers, heavy drum machine beats and death metal-inspired guitar work in a way that makes good on the band's promise to "make music that points forward, escaping the constraints of traditional guitar sounds in favor of less charted (electronic) aural waters."
However, despite the fact that Danse Macabre peaked at number three on the CMJ chart last fall, and almost every online zine (as well as MTV.com and Spin.com) have found it necessary to mention them, you could be forgiven for having never heard of The Faint. Indeed, the synth-rockers from Omaha, Nebraska have had a hard time finding a logical home. Too accessible for the underground scene, but too weird for the radio; too cool for the emo-kids but too human for the dance floor, The Faint is almost certainly an anomaly in whatever record collection you find them in.
Attempting to make some sense out of this outfit that grew out of the post-punk underground but who avoid the suburban ennui and open chord noodleing preferred by their peers in favor of dance-floor friendly loops, most writers choose to dwell on the group's similarities to new wavers like New Order, Depeche Mode, and even Duran Duran as if writing songs with synthesizers, as opposed to electro-jams, makes them automatically derivetive. Besides being dangerously overly simplistic, these comparisons run the risk of reducing The Faint to eighties revivalists at best and schtick mongers at worst. While there is no shortage of eighties nostalgia, neither from radio executives nor the current presidential administration, attempts to pull The Faint into this story are almost certainly misguided. Clearly it makes more sense to place them in the context of electronica; perhaps the longest running next-big-thing the music industry has ever seen.
However, the ubiquity of the new wave connection is very telling of the condition of underground music in general which tends to mistake progress for fad and, in doing so, disarm innovation. For example, the (hopefully still) thriving avant-garde jazz scene in Chicago became "The Thing" a couple of years ago with bands like Tortoise, Storm and Stress and, the aptly named, Chicago Underground spearheading something the critics tellingly called "post rock." It is interesting that the very qualities that were first lauded - complex compositions, subtle changes and virtuosic talent - became the very things that were used to discredit the sound. It is cold, elitist and, worst of all, boring, the kids said. Predictably enough, those kids soon moved on to garage rock noise makers like the White Stripes who will never be blamed for being complex, subtle or virtuosic.
While The Faint seem to have successfully sidestepped the leaders-of-a-new-movement pitfall, thanks either to their close alignment with definitely-not-new-wave label mates Cursive and Bright Eyes, or the fact that it still takes more than one band to make a movement, they have had much less success shaking the retro eighties label. In some ways, this might even be a less desirable fate. At least Tortoise was (for a brief moment) recognized for its challenging music. The Faint's visionary music, on the other hand, is often characterized simply as a hip way to have fun and be goofy. For example, in an attempt to praise Danse Macabre, one reviewer writes, "it can have you dancing around like Joan Cusack in a John Hughes film." Not that The Faint aren't fun, or that there is anything wrong with having fun. It's just that it is a shame to reduce the music's significance to kitschy escapism.
For me, what separates Danse Macabre from new wave albums, and the nostalgia for them, is that Devo and the like were, for most people, science fiction while The Faint are firmly rooted in today. And the fact that today is a pretty scary place, thanks in large part to the broken promises of technological progress, makes The Faint's distinct brand of techno-core rage and cyber-soaked exhilaration all the more relevant. Like the prophetic mannequin in the song "Your Retro Career Melted" who appears to drunken, uncomprehending crowds to deliver the simple message that gives the song its name, The Faint have come to state the obvious; that the old ways of doing things don't work anymore -- and were boring in the first place. Will we be like the townspeople who gawk for a while before shooting the mannequin or will we take its advice and come up with new and exciting ways to move on? Your answer will be considered on the dance floor.