Back from the Grave

Dead and Gone revamps its postpunk "suburban blues" after a five-year hiatus.

Dead and Gone is not your typical lazy punk band. In the last ten weeks, these longtime vets of the East Bay’s post-hardcore scene have played twelve European countries, in addition to a grueling thirty-city US tour that took them from New York to Los Angeles. It helps that the band’s latest GSL release, The Beautician, has been getting fantastic reviews on both sides of the Atlantic as well as college radio airplay, without any help from the certain famous friend who produced the band’s first two records.

Without the studio assistance of Billie Joe Armstrong, Dead and Gone has managed to grow into a fiercely menacing band. The mid-1990s thrash attack has evolved into a finely tuned noise-rock machine. At times the band sounds like a grindcore outfit; at other times it dazzles the listener with Sonic Youth-inspired minor-key dissonant guitar musings.

Although Dead and Gone has been gigging intermittently since 1993, its landmark was the 1997 Alternative Tentacles release God Loves Everyone But You. But that record and the resultant heavy touring eventually broke up the foursome, as tensions rose between vocalist Shane Baker and the rest of the band. Guitarist Crane, drummer Joey Perales, and bassist Brian Stern went on to form Creeps on Candy sans Baker, and the three gigged heavily in addition to releasing their Wonders of Giardia, Vol. 3 on Alternative Tentacles in 1999.

But by 2001, things got better between Baker and his former band mates. “I talked to them right before a tour of theirs, because I kept running into them everywhere I went, and it seemed like we’d come to a similar place in our lives where we just wanted to play again,” Baker recalls. Even though this latest incarnation of Dead and Gone was a decidedly different, evolving band, the four still decided to go ahead and play as Dead and Gone. “We couldn’t even remember why we had broken up before,” Baker says. “All the tension seemed to have dissolved — and they needed a singer.”

Now the band has also added keyboards and sequencers on tracks such as “Ultimate Remote Control Toy.” Rockey Crane’s guitar work is razor sharp, featuring haunting melodies and proficient chops on tracks like the creepy “Leave the Dead to Bury the Dead” and a tightly wound Rowland S. Howardesque shake on “Future Future.” And Baker’s singing style swings dangerously like a sharpened pendulum from a deep sensual purr to a screaming wail in seconds.

The end result is dark and evil — with ringing guitars, a rhythm section that could trigger earthquake sensors, and harsh lyrics about death and addiction that would make a Goth blush. “Even as a kid I was always drawn to dark subjects and always listening to rock music that spoke to a darker side of me,” Baker says. But dark doesn’t even come close to describing the lyrical content on The Beautician. To wit, consider “Fresh Cut Lips”: “When they cut you in your sleep/when they kiss you on your lips/when they lick your secret wounds/you know you’re not alone/I found a message in my mouth/I found a message in my head/the gods are pecking at my eyes/How do I know I’m still alive?”

Baker prefers to explore the darkest reaches of the human psyche. “It’s not necessarily that you are depressed, it’s just sort of the universal human condition,” he says. Nonetheless, he is smart enough to drop occasional biblical and mythological references throughout the album. And to prove that he is not altogether without a sense of humor, he offers up another way to describe Dead and Gone’s particular brand of punishing, noisy post-punk. “I like to call our music ‘suburban blues,'” he says with a laugh.

It was in the suburbs of Contra Costa County that Baker wrote The Beautician‘s most eerie and prescient track, “Towers on Fire.” The first song on the record, it could easily be about the World Trade Center attacks, as most assume on first listen, but the song actually was committed to tape in July 2001. “It’s an eerie coincidence for sure,” says Baker, “like many that have happened since September 11 — but ‘Towers on Fire’ is mostly about when I was a kid living in Rodeo and you looked out any window and saw these oil refineries burning.”

The way Baker wrote the short, machine-gun burst of a song, however, you’d be hard pressed to believe the song is not about the WTC. “Towers on fire now/you know it’s that kind of town/see the flames through the windows/burning ghosts, nothing grows/there’s chemicals in the air/you can feel them on your skin/the towers burn all night/the towers burn.” Baker brushes aside any real coincidence, but he does offer up some political similarities. “Just because you are living a middle-class existence in America now doesn’t mean that at some point you won’t get pushed somewhere else, like millions of refugees throughout the world.” It’s this political sensibility, coupled with the band’s deft musicianship, that helped land Dead and Gone on Jello Biafra’s Alternative Tentacles label back in 1997.

Hardcore may be woefully out of fashion, and electronic dance music may be the rage in major US cities, but Dead and Gone are back playing music to a steady — and steadily growing — group of loyalists.

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