There’s not much of a difference between a menacing smile and a goofy grin. How much separates Jack Nicholson’s terrifying mug sticking through a crack in the door in The Shining and that creepy kid from Fred: The Movie? Exuberance, whether it’s joyful or crazed, will often look the same way: eyes widening, teeth glistening, cheeks stretching, forehead crinkling, tongue wagging. Dope Body, a fearsome art-sludge foursome from Baltimore, understands this better than any band in recent memory. The group released its debut album, Nupping, last year, and now it’s back with an even better LP titled Natural History, out this week on Drag City. It’s a record that oscillates between intensity and silliness with such grace that it’s almost impossible to distinguish between the two. Are they coming at you with a knife or one of those handshake buzzers?
Dope Body specializes in a type of genre-splicing that can be very irritating when done poorly. The two primary influences at work seem to be ’90s grunge-funk metal and modern-day Baltimore loft noise, two genres that don’t immediately beg for a garish mash-up, but when listening to the album it becomes quickly apparent that the band’s members have an appropriate balance of reverence for past artists and total disregard for genre rules.
Drummer David Jacober is fond of clanging cymbals and occasional wind chimes, like the ones that kick off the album opener “Shook.” Bassist John Jones brings a snapping, rumbling presence to each song, and guitarist Zach Utz anchors each song with spazzy guitar freak-outs that sound as though they’re climbing out of a sewer with each garbled scrape. Utz’s playing can be anthemic (mosh-pit shit-kicker “Road Dog”) and showy (prog-metal-jam tweaker “Twice The Life”) when it wants to be, then suddenly morph into a more rhythm- and texture-based style (bizzare-o Zelda fight song “Powder”). He employs straightforward riffs but still finds time for loops and experiments. His inventive and energetic playing serves as the sustaining oxygen-tank for this dark, sweaty bunker of an album.
Most of that oxygen gets sucked up by vocalist/designated-yeller Andrew Laumann, the band’s wild-eyed, roaming id. Combining throaty, shout-along singing with guttural grunts and groans, Laumann often sounds like he was plucked from some Seattle hard-rock fantasy camp. At times he sounds like Tom Waits fronting Mudhoney. His breaking-point vocals occasionally threaten to overtake the album, tipping it toward the smirking side of the menacing/mirthful divide, but he sells the big moments with head-banging gusto. “You’re looking right through me/And then I realize more than I know/Please give me a sign that I can see,” he yelps on “Powder,” identifying the type of jittery anxiety that defines the album.
Despite its party-hard attitude, Natural History has a thoughtful, searching soul. As Jacober recently told CMJ, the title of the album refers to the subterranean venue where the band got its start, and that sense of reflection and self-examination informs the album. Introspection doesn’t always come easy to bands with such a keen sense of technically proficient barbarism because the need to expand and refine your thematic palette doesn’t feel as essential: If you can still whip a basement into a frenzy, why bother digging deeper into your own neurosis? Dope Body may be a relatively new band, but already it’s shown itself to be curious and playful. Luckily, those are two qualities you can’t sweat out.