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Chain and the Gang - "Experimental Music" | Album Review

chain and the gang cover.jpg

by Quinn Myers (@rquinnmyers)

Washington DC’s Chain & The Gang, the self-styled “anti-liberty” band, has decided that maybe now is as good a time as ever to wrangle themselves up from the gutter and release a new album. Led by the erudite and larger-than-life bandleader Ian Svenonius, Experimental Music holds a weighty roster of certified, grade-A rock and roll hits -- and is the band’s best sounding, most coherent statement amongst an impressive output over the past few years. 

Always high, Svenonius’ energy on Experimental Music carries its usual intoxicating and cathartic power. The vocal howls and guitar solos and, noticeably, piano, melt into an integral part of the band’s operational code: that this music is supposed to be fun, and funny. The  choppy, call and response numbers that populate every Chain & The Gang release can be received as both lighthearted salve and white hot poker buried deep into the eye of any poser (or, in the words of a now infamous press release, “paid-off web-zine tastemakers.”) 

In some ways, Chain & The Gang’s music can feel like an even purer distillation of the surf and garage sounds they’ve always emulated. Svenonius is such a devout student of rock and roll (check out one of his DJ sets to watch him spin through his horde of rare rock 45s) that he nails the required fuzz and feedback with enough finesse and passion to come away with a detached, effortless cool. This hyper-specific mastery is most strongly felt on ‘Rome (Wasn’t Burnt in a Day)’, the album’s lead single and classic Chain tune. 

As much as Chain & The Gang’s reputation rides on Svenonius’ clever cynicism,  I’ve always found the project to be full of a generosity that encourages a different path forward. The band’s very existence, in all of its odd specificity and nostalgic dives, seems to be urging listeners, fans, reviewers, anyone -- to look past the false promises of liberal capitalism and hollow modern modes of expression. On Experimental Music, a sincerity pokes through the requisite layers upon layers of irony more vividly than on any of the band’s previous records.

Certainly, confidence and bravado drive the pathos behind all of his projects, but it’s Chain & The Gang that seems to offer the clearest glimpse into Svenonius’ conscience and artistic temperament. While the band’s songs often feel like escapism (see: Escape-ism, one of Svenonius’ solo projects), almost every track on Experimental Music feels purposeful and tied to a personal or political transgression. The title track is a good example. When Svenonius sings “walking down the beach with my baby...experimental music feels so free,” or, “experimental music composers/don’t care about the whims of the marketplace,” it’s absolutely a direct shot at the self-important avant-garde, but also very much a legitimate conveyance of feeling and gratitude. This dichotomy seems integral to the Chain & The Gang project: the band makes songs that are abrasive and sassy but also heartfelt and sincere. 

Chain & The Gang has always been a revolving door of talented musicians who add a little bit here and there, but the group that Svenonius brings together on Experimental Music (including the very present contributions of Fred Thomas) is probably the best lineup the band’s seen. The playing is tighter and more thematically consistent than ever, especially the percussion. This all comes together on “Don’t Scare the Ghost Away”, the strongest song on the record. 

The track is one of the most thematically heavy in the Chain & The Gang catalogue, stripped away of much of the ironic digs and sonic punchiness. Instead, Svenonius sings about existential pain through the lens of a murderous ghost story. It’s intriguing and welcome terrain for the band, and includes some of the best guitar work on the album. 

I’ve always connected with the sometimes clear, sometimes obfuscated link Chain & The Gang chases in their music that goes back to a kind of original punk ethos. The band exalts a wide cast of lowlifes and burnouts, degenerates and, of course, criminals - and it’s an embrace that ultimately seems forged in deep compassion and inquiry. The successes of Experimental Music celebrate that feeling, and work toward furthering the band’s absurd, vital motto: down with liberty, up with chains.