Although Dan Deacon's moshable hybrid of punk-rock energy, Casio melodies, and chipmunk vocals made him an instant indie darling two years ago, his musical pedigree is more studied than the cursory listen to his berserk back catalog may suggest. The former music conservatory student has in the past put voluminous enthusiasm and blitzkrieg bopping at the forefront of his work, but his latest outing highlights renewed compositional prowess alongside those reckless rhythms.
Building on the spastic party jam base that set his 2007 breakthrough Spiderman of the Rings ablaze, Deacon's latest album, Bromst, expands his songwriting palette. His low-budget electronics are now augmented by live drums, guitar, glockenspiel, and an inhumanly fast player piano, as on the instrumental "Slow with Horns/Run for Your Life." Besides the usual pulsating beats and repetitive synth loops, the songs have slow build-ups to soaring crescendos, extended drone passages, and dense walls of sound. "Snookered" begins softly with chimes of glockenspiel, additional instruments slowly filing in for two full minutes before Deacon's effects-laden vocals enter with the ponderous assertion, "Been round this road so many times, feel like its skin is part of mine."
The songs are still playful, but less innocent, more concerned with the onward march of time than with goofy imagery of cats and snakes. The album's most contemplative tune, "Wet Wings," consists simply of an old gospel sample of a woman plaintively wailing "The day is passed and gone," layered on top of itself until it becomes shimmering white noise.
Bromst concerns itself with a richer expression of the human experience than the Baltimore weirdo-dance idol has presented in the past. It's in keeping with Deacon's assertion, though, that the initial purpose of music is "to be a reflection of the spirit, not a reflection of your academic knowledge."
Deacon has always leaned away from the ivory tower with his myriad projects. In 2004, he helped establish the Wham City art collective in a Baltimore warehouse. Here, he developed his aggressively positive music as a reaction to what he perceived as grunge-era negativity in underground acts. Like many art spaces built on tenuous legal grounds, though, Wham City garnered eviction notices that shuttered the original space just two years after it began. "It was a lot of fun, but when we got evicted it seemed like things changed a lot," he says. As Wham City transitioned from an anarchic party house into a scattered group making plans through e-mail, the shift in energy made Deacon realize that he couldn't make "basement party music" forever.
As Deacon looked inward, though, his live show grew outward. He used to tour with only a table full of cheap synths and effects pedals. Now he's hitting the road with a 14-member ensemble playing acoustic and electronic instruments. He admits that composing music for such a large group is a challenge for someone used to dealing with pure electronics. "When you're writing for people, it's like, can their fingers spread this far apart to reach these particular keys and frets?" he says. "I have to go back and refamiliarize myself with the physical and acoustic restrictions of the instruments, which is a welcome restriction."
With more than a dozen performers at his command, though, additional logistical concerns come to the forefront. For years, Deacon has performed solo shows on venue floors, flanked by sardine-packed fans. When asked whether his troupe would eschew stages in the same way, he says those details are still being worked through. He admits that he considered the need to connect with the audience against the need to connect with his band members. "Hopefully by the time we get to San Francisco, it will be worked out," he concludes.