The Defiant Ones

"These are the letters that are most complimentary — the ones that start off, "When I first heard your CD, I thought it sucked!'" Ben Weinman, founder of New Jersey metalcore merchants Dillinger Escape Plan, isn't kidding at all. "That's the first line," he says with a laugh. "And then it goes on to say that the person felt compelled to give it a couple more listens, and now we're their favorite band." What follows may well be the understatement of the decade, given DEP's sonic milieu: "It means we're making music that's not that easy to take, that someone has to work a little bit to understand it."

Anyone who believes that Slipknot's melange of Hellraiser and Slayer is the be-all-and-end-all of extreme rock obviously hasn't been paying much attention to the heavy-music underground (or, for that matter, what the diehards in Europe have been listening to). Metal's most abrasive and envelope-pushing sounds have always flourished in the shadows, from the early days of San Francisco's thrash scene and Chicago's industrial noise to Brooklyn-bred hardcore and our own, still-viable death metal community. If you want the really out-there shit, you've got to go out there.

And DEP is out there. The technically complex yet utterly visceral outfit is more firmly rooted in the punk/hardcore DIY tradition than in metal-scene associations, but remains more than capable of flattening the most adventurous listener to a pulpy mess. Ambitious and eclectic, the Plan's style recalls the noise-jazz freakouts of John Zorn or Mr. Bungle as often as it does Drowningman's tech-y groovecore or Morbid Angel's airtight blastbeats. But DEP doesn't sound much like any of these groups — they just incorporate a similar level of ability and open-endedness into their own aural carnage.

A gripping blend of dexterity and feel has informed Dillinger Escape Plan's sound since day one. DEP came together in 1997, when several hardcore-scene friends realized that playing what they assumed other people wanted to hear was not only getting them nowhere but completely unfulfilling as well. "Nobody really accepted us. We were trying to play typical music in other bands, and people thought it was just more of the same, that we sucked, we weren't cool, we weren't part of the scene," Weinman remembers. "We just got to the point where we said, "Screw it, let's incorporate all of the music we've ever loved, and write stuff that's not geared toward anybody besides ourselves.'" The guitarist admits that, at the outset, envy drove quite a bit of Dillinger's scattered, violent energy.

"We were, honestly, very bitter, jealous of a lot of what we saw around us," he says. "All the bands out there getting attention that we felt was undeserved. We decided that we were never gonna have that, and to just write music that spit in (their) face."

The band soon found, however, that the intensity they generated proved cathartic on more levels than one. Using Dillinger as an outlet for the frustrations toward everything from scene politics to college finals, the members hit on an endless supply of energy and motivation.

"We're not aggressive people," says Weinman. "So this became a great opportunity for us to vent off the day. And that, mixed in with the anger we felt toward the scene around us, all came together and made the whole package." For a while, it seemed as though the whole package was destined to die in the wasteland between heavy music's opposite poles of the primal and the technical. Crushing but articulate, spastic but nuanced, and evil but dressed in shorts and a ringer tee, DEP ran the risk of alienating fans on both sides. It may well have been just another part of a misanthropic scheme, however. While the majority of heavy-music aficionados seems to take sides, the band itself has never had a problem reconciling the two facets of its personality.

"I think a lot of other people have a hard time balancing them, but we don't. There's a lot of bands out there that are either really intricate, or really aggressive," Weinman notes. "And I haven't come across a lot of them that try to combine the two, or want to, or even understand the reasons why they should."

It's their sheer sense of energy that sets the Plan apart from other technically accomplished acts and has endeared them to a loyal core crowd more interested in forceful expression than genre. They're known for a blistering, volatile live show, and DEP quickly built a reputation for chaotic stage spectacle — nudity, bizarre behavior, combat and copious blood flow have all characterized Dillinger sets more than once or twice. After a self-produced LP and EP, it was a particularly frenzied road gig that got them signed to Relapse Records, a kingpin of underground metal. The resulting full-length, 1999's Calculating Infinity, received critical raves worldwide, and made the band indie heroes in Europe and fixtures on the all-ages touring circuit here at home. It also caught the attention of Mr. Bungle leader/Fantomas singer/former Faith No More leader/all-around iconoclastic music guru Mike Patton, who invited the band to open Bungle's entire U.S. tour. (Ironically, that tour's Bay area date was the only one DEP didn't play, as Mr. Bungle's road manager found sufficient problems with the State Theatre's sound system to delay admission for four hours.)

The Patton/DEP connection continues; late last fall, when Dillinger's vocalist/co-founder Dimitri Minakakis left the band amicably in order to concentrate on various other projects, Patton offered his services. A flurry of studio sessions and tape swapping ensued, with the two parties working separately on four embryonic Dillinger Escape Plan songs.

"We figured we might as well use the time to collaborate with him and release something — that kind of opportunity is just sick to us, a great thing to do during the transition," says Weinman.

Tentatively titled Irony Is A Dead Scene, the EP will be released this spring by Epitaph Records. Weinman likens its sound to that of previous Dillinger outings but pushed to even further extremes. He guarantees that an upcoming new full-length by the newly re-solidified DEP (Weiman, guitar; Chris Pennie, drums; Brian Benoit, guitar; Liam Wilson, bass; Greg Puciato, vocals) will bear out the band's evolution.

"The heavy, crazy parts are heavier and crazier than ever, and the more interesting, weirder parts are ... uh, weirder and more interesting, I guess," Weinman says with a chuckle.

Despite the continuing parade of prefabricated, cliched metal bands, each about as edgy as a Little Debbie snack cake, Dillinger Escape Plan remains truly disconcerting and defiantly original. Even as a heavily buzzed underground entity, now accepted rather than cast out, the band continues to find new sources of dangerous energy to fuel their style. And they're still unconcerned about making music for anyone other than themselves.

"I respect someone who can write a good, popular hit, because that's a skill in itself," says Weinman. "But at the same time, the best bands out there have always been the ones that people are critical about.

"The most respected band you can be in is one that people either love or hate."

Music critic Scott Harrell can be reached at 813-248-8888, ext. 109, or e-mail him at [email protected].

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