Dropsonic is the perpetual band-on-the-verge. For over five years they’ve been called a band to watch, a promising newcomer, the next big thing – but nothing has materialized. Insects with Angel Wings, their fourth release through as many channels, probably won’t find them any closer to their goal.
That’s not to say they don’t deserve it. Dropsonic’s most recent effort is easily their best – a raw, edgy, hard-rocking blend of classic Led Zeppelin and early Radiohead that perfects the formula they’ve been working on since their self-released debut. But without major or even just steady label support, Dropsonic is again unlikely to reach an audience beyond critics and college radio DJs. While math-rock specialists 54-40 or Fight!, who released 2002’s Belle, seemed an appropriate home for the group, Dropsonic’s latest label is a big puzzler. Rowdy Records, based in the band’s hometown of Atlanta and owned by producer Dallas Austin, helped launch the city’s R&B/hip-hop scene in 1995 through the release of Monica’s Miss Thang. Today Austin is trying to revitalize Rowdy’s name through his latest find, rap group Da BackWudz. How Dropsonic fits into that scheme is anybody’s guess.
Besides being ever-nascent record company castaways, something else has remained consistent across Dropsonic’s career – comparisons to Led Zeppelin and Radiohead. Rather than changing their somewhat derivative sound, Dropsonic has embraced and continually improved this approach. The union of the two styles is more forthright than you may imagine – Dan Dixon literally sings like Thom Yorke and plays guitar like Jimmy Page. Amazingly, it works. The result is riff- and groove-heavy rock and roll with an intelligent, angsty slant. On Insects with Angel Wings, Dropsonic’s sound is familiar enough to sound welcoming at first listen and distinctive enough to establish its own sound by the middle of the record. By the end, it’s clear they’ve released one excellent hard rock album.
A fat, plodding bassline runs through opener “Summer’s Gone,” giving way to a chorus with a ripped-up rhythm, then a breakdown, then back again. Coupled with Dixon’s guitar work, it’s unmistakably Led Zeppelin. Not until Dixon screams his way out of the song does a real Dropsonic touch appear. A Page-style guitar solo in “Spiders” falls between choruses that signal the second coming of Thom Yorke’s Pablo Honey rock phase. The distorted harmonica part that runs through “My Girl” calls to mind Robert Plant’s work with the instrument in “When The Levee Breaks.” “When You Die” places two guitar tracks front and center – frenzied riffs and rhythms tossing each other about, reckless and loud and sounding a lot less deliberate than they are. This is organic, jammy hard rock, something like what Led Zeppelin used to deliver live when they’d extend their already massive tunes. From one song to the next, Dropsonic matches the power of Led Zeppelin and the intensity of Radiohead in a blend that comes better through the ears than the eyes.
They aren’t afraid to deviate from this formula. Okay, “Rotten Luck” isn’t all that different, fusing instead Black Sabbath and Soundgarden. But the difference is notable – there’s more of a hard/soft dynamic, Dixon does his best Chris Cornell, and the guitar riffs are pure evil. Again, it really works. “The Big Nothing” is a calm, plaintive song that offers a break from the energy of their typical full-steam-ahead approach. “Insane” does the same, dropping the tempo to a near-crawl as the record comes to a close. Ghastly background vocals recall yet again – you guessed it – Radiohead. No matter; both cuts are hard-earned and well-appreciated.
Insects with Angel Wings is a fine record on all fronts – writing, performance, and production – leaning equally heavily on balls-out rock, instrumental precision, and independent, creative spirit. Dixon’s lyrics are strong in the mix but ultimately unobtrusive – not good, not bad, not worth mentioning. That notwithstanding, almost every song is good, and the whole is even better – proof that originality and innovation aren’t necessarily the best measuring sticks for good ol’ rock ‘n’ roll. Dropsonic may be perpetual dwellers in the vast realm of underground rock, but they sound as energized and hopeful as ever.