The Dillinger Escape Plan is a bit like the ship of Theseus. That’s not an Iron Maiden song, remarkably, but an old Greek paradox: If every piece of a ship is replaced over time, will it still be the same ship? Guitarist Ben Weinman is the sole remaining founding member of the stalwart New Jersey mathcore group, which came together a decade ago. Even Weinman’s status is uncertain, thanks to his accident-prone nature; a lingering rotator cuff injury prompted his physician to order him to ease up on his trademark frenetic playing style, and he broke his foot in September during a video shoot for “Milk Lizard,” a track from the band’s latest release, Ire Works.
Lineup instability is a constant in heavy metal. The death-metal band Napalm Death turned revolving membership into an art form—the group served as a temporary refuge for luminaries like Justin Broadrick (Godflesh, Jesu) and Lee Dorian (Cathedral). The Dillinger Escape Plan’s roster isn’t quite so unsettled, but it’s a close second. Here’s the condensed version. Guitarist John Fulton left the band after its first EP, replaced by Brian Benoit. Bassist Adam Doll was paralyzed in a car accident before recording the band’s debut full-length, Calculating Infinity; he was briefly replaced by Jeff Wood, then Liam Wilson. Then original vocalist Dimitri Minakakis quit, though he guests on Ire Works’ spasmodic opener, “Fix Your Face.” Vocalist Greg Puciato joined for the band’s second full-length, 2004’s Miss Machine, which added some experimental elements—distorted pop melodies, NIN-style industrial music—to their jazzy, mathcore sound. While touring, Benoit developed a neural disorder in his left hand and was replaced by Jeff Tuttle. Weinman injured his shoulder in a car accident and took a leave of absence. Then, weeks before recording Ire Works, original drummer Chris Pennie defected to neo-prog heavyweights and former tourmates Coheed and Cambria. They found a more-than-capable replacement in Gil Sharone, likely the only drummer whose résumé includes work with members of the English Beat and Bad Brains, as well as an episode of Full House.
The band has a healthy, humorous attitude about all those mishaps and personnel changes, even speculating on its MySpace page that it’s “probably only a matter of time before we are all dead, Final Destination style.” At times, it does seem that the Dillinger Escape Plan has inherited the curse that doomed all those poor Spinal Tap drummers.
But despite all this, the band has maintained some sonic consistencies. Ire Works continues in the experimental vein of Miss Machine, obviously owing a debt to former collaborator Mike Patton’s various projects, from Faith No More to Mr. Bungle to Fantômas. Ire Works’ first two songs, “Fix Your Face” and “Lurch,” exemplify the band’s ability to mix primitive force with mathlete precision—call it troglonometry. On “Fix Your Face,” Puciato and Minakakis may as well be talking about the band’s star-crossed nature and determination when they scream, “At our wake the casket is open ready for the viewing/But we are still moving/Already we smell of rot/There will be no comeback/No coming back for any one of us now.”
The album’s outlandish third track, “Black Bubblegum,” is a catchy strutter that combines blue-collar art-noise with the fondant-covered, clubbed-out showtunes of the Scissor Sisters. Listening to the track, it’s easy to imagine the brawny Puciato sashaying across the stage as he vamps, “So full of shit with every breath that you breathe/But you forget that in your fairy tale I’m the wolf/All this attention got you thinking that you’re a queen/You think that everything you’re doing isn’t a dream/Long as it feels all right.”
If “Black Bubblegum” is a disturbed pleasure cruise, “Sick on Sunday” is a risky venture into uncharted waters, mixing electronic glitches with brief salvos of death metal, a blue-eyed soul chorus, and laid-back vibraphone accompaniment. Similar experiments spring up throughout the disc. “When Acting as a Wave,” with its numerous tempo changes, shows why Sharone is such a nice fit for the band. “Milk Lizard” starts with an intricate guitar riff and blasts of brass horns before Puciato sings, “My thick tongue hangs down low to the ground licking up the sweat coming off of her heels.” The palpable anger of the song gives way to an uplifting, catchy-as-fuck chorus reminiscent of Miss Machine’s “Setting Fire to Sleeping Giants.”
A few of the band’s detours can be alienating. “Horse Hunter” starts off hard and fast and then briefly retreats into Zappa-esque ax noodles before Puciato one-ups Aerosmith’s “Lord of the Thighs,” proclaiming himself “Monarch of your womb/Messiah of your thighs.” “Dead as History” has a positively atmospheric intro—a faint whirring, moody piano and delicate string plucks that speak to Fantômas’ influence—but it’s something of a buzzkill when the chug-chugga arrives and ruins the spooky vibe.
Ire Works closes with “Mouth of Ghosts,” the band’s most ambitious song to date. It achieves a sprawling, cinematic majesty with a gorgeous interplay between drums and piano and sotto voce singing. Puciato’s vocals combine melancholy with anger in a way that makes for a redeeming catharsis at the song’s climax: “You were a mouth without a heart/An action without meaning/And you walk afraid/Reaching for the hands that turned closed.” It sounds like nothing that the band has done before; it certainly doesn’t sound like a band that’s hobbling on busted limbs.
The evolution of the group’s sound seems less like a result of a shifting lineup than the natural progression of a band that’s unafraid of change. The hostility evident in its songs could be viewed as a reaction to the adversity that it has faced over the years, but its willingness to explore new sounds speaks to a more positive approach to those hardships. Many planks on the SS Dillinger Escape Plan may have been replaced over time; frankly, it will be a miracle if the boat doesn’t sink or catch fire. But it is the same ship as it’s always been, and it’s definitely moving with a purpose.