For better or worse, synthwave’s metal-mashup masterminds are back with a brand new full-length album, Loved to Death. The recording extends the artists’ stylistic trajectory away from their synthwave roots on early releases like Out of Body and Into the Abyss and into the grittier, heavier darksynth style heard on 2016’s The Shape. The results are occasionally favorable, though the defining characteristics of Dance with the Dead’s music remain intact to a point of yawn-inducing routine. Despite several enjoyable moments backed by excellent production, the duo’s outdated compositional choices and general lack of creativity prevent the recording from feeling meaningful in 2018.
It has to be said up front: no one–absolutely no one–within the synthwave and darksynth genres incorporates electric guitar into their music as well as Dance with the Dead. While a majority of artists, including prominent acts like Carpenter Brut and Judge Bitch, allow electric guitars to turn their audio into sickly pale musical mud, Dance with the Dead’s production wizardry successfully unites synthesizer and guitar tones without compromising either. The result not only remains crystal clear and massive throughout Loved to Death but actually improves at high volume, delivering gleaming melodies and coarse rhythms alongside wall-shaking bass beats with unparalleled craftsmanship.
That monumental sound comes through immediately on the opener, “Go!,” an energetic piece featuring some of the heaviest and most aggressive writing on the recording. It’s well placed as the lead-off track, particularly when it dives into the equally striking “Into the Shadows.” Both songs pass with enthusiasm and establish a healthy start for the album, even if the duo’s signature style feels a bit too familiar right out of the gate. These won’t be the last worthwhile moments on the album, though the first two entries turn out to be among the most exciting ones.
There are two detrimental factors weighing down Loved to Death. The first is that the music is missing the inspired spark and excitement of past recordings, a fact that’s likely to feel compounded for anyone who’s followed the act closely over the years. The second is that the tracks are needlessly long and feature repetitive and outdated compositional choices that can’t begin to justify the songs’ long running times. Unfortunately, these factors sometimes combine to bury tracks on Loved to Death on the very first spin of the album.
To the first point, it’s easy to feel a sense of flavor fatigue working through the 43-minute running time. “Creep” in particular is a paint-by-numbers effort that’s interchangeable with at least two dozen tracks from Dance with the Dead’s past. “Portraits” and “Oracle” are similarly generic, and even the most ardent supporters of the group would have trouble identifying these songs’ corresponding albums in a blind listening test.
Loved to Death is the seventh album of material from the act, and the homogenized style of their music has become impossible to ignore. For fans who have spent the last five years enjoying the artists’ discography–especially those who have listened to Dance with the Dead more than almost all other artists—Loved to Death hardly even feels like new material.
Innovation and evolution aren’t always the answer for bands getting deep into their discography, though in a darksynth genre that has expanded and improved rapidly in the past two to three years, the minimal progress on Loved to Death causes it to feel left behind. Not only is it missing the inspired spark that gave past releases their addictive quality, but it pales next to the best darksynth albums released in the two years since The Shape.
Unfortunately, the duo’s underachieving compositional style manages to spoil many of the tracks that don’t feel like self-plagiarism. For example, “War” is highly engaging when it begins, and its coarse, rhythmic style places it in alignment with modern darksynth more than most of the entries on the album. Yet Dance with the Dead has dragged the music out to a wasteful five-minute running time, and the ceaselessly chugging synth bass rhythm becomes pure monotony by its end.
Same again for “Red Moon,” an exciting, guitar-led effort with a vigorous solo in its back half. The first third is great, though it begins to lose its flavor even before the guitar solo can bring a welcome bit of variety to the music. When the solo fades away and the song returns to the exact same thumping beat and steam-engine guitar rhythm that preceded it, it’s easy to let out a long groan of disappointment. This is synthwave songwriting on auto-pilot, and the absent-minded structures become a drag on many of the most enjoyable pieces on the recording.
The album isn’t particularly long in the first place, and if the song lengths were appropriate for the amount of variety within each one–closer to three and a half minutes–the album would barely clock in over 30 minutes. Of those, only about 20 are worth hearing. There simply isn’t much quality content on the album, and the redundant song lengths and garden-variety Dance with the Dead tracks ultimately come across as filler. Loved to Death contains an EP worth of meaningful music that’s been stretched and padded to look like a full-length album.
Despite excellent production and a handful of impressive moments, don’t expect greatness from Loved to Death. Compared to the high points of Near Dark and The Shape, both of which benefited from their earlier release dates, the new album falls flat just as often as it succeeds. Its best moments come early on, while many of the ensuing efforts are either too plain or too reminiscent of past releases to warrant a listen. It’s disappointingly difficult to feel a connection with the result.
Rating: 60 / 100 (Adequate)
Listen to Dance with the Dead and related artists in Iron Skullet’s Darksynth playlist.
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