DAFINO – Deus est Nullus ex Machina
Dafino took home the MAMA last March for Best New Band and if sheer moxie were rewarded there’s little doubt they’d be in the running for most ambitious debut by a Madison band. A long time in the making, this is a concept album, playing continuously over forty-five minutes and seventeen tracks. It was recorded and produced by the band in their northern Wisconsin rehearsal space and appears to be largely conceptualized by keyboardist/vocalist Quinn Kiesow, the story being credited to him.
Deus est Nullus ex Machina is an adolescent coming-of-age story that is somewhat hard to follow. The nameless protagonist escapes into an inner world dominated by his dream visions. The catalyst for this transformation is headphones and the music that spells out the world for him. Besides the headphones, there is another guidepost in the visions: a radio tower that somehow gives him the will to remain in his dreams in a more conscious state. It’s a heavy theme and the music is just as moody and heavy. Spoken, rhythmic dialogue is scattered throughout, lending exposition to the tale, but it’s difficult to draw any conclusions.
The disc is divided up into three acts; a prologue of sorts, a sleep/dream stage, and a waking/realization stage. The songs are separated by instrumental passages, random bits of electronic improvisation, or more spoken parts that, frankly, the album and the story could have done without, as they lend very little information to the proceedings. The packaging is quite artistic, with the minimalist drawings of guitarist Andrew Muenchow decorating the slipcase and the insert, and complementing the tone of the story and music.
Dafino are at their best when they drop the melodrama and pretension and just rock. Their songs follow a formula through much of the first two acts: Jane’s Addiction-type angular dissonance in the verses with more melodic modern rock choruses. Often the verses are speak-sing while the choruses are sung with lush harmonies and thick melody. It’s not until track fifteen, “Waking Up,” that they blow the formula away. “Waking Up” begins with a lovely piano figure and then establishes a groove and unique identity before blasting into glorious staccato bursts of metal. They finish the album off with an excellent orchestrated instrumental called “The Final Curtain” that features Biff Blumfumgagnge on viola and violin, Emily Selk on cello and Meghan McDonnell on flute. It’s a powerful rock orchestra that brings King Crimson circa Lark’s Tongue in Aspic to mind. The instrumental middle section of “Less Myself” is moving and powerful while “Never” and “Louder” have memorable melodies that will stick in your head.
Deus est Nullus ex Machina is an exercise in psychedelic, expansive rock that seems to buck the trend, which is definitely not toward concept albums but more toward shorter, extended-plays that refresh the listener every few months rather than once a year or so. The story gets a little weird, too, with the kid dreaming that his ears have turned into speakers, then awakening to find that his ears have actually turned into speakers. In a way, it makes for a dark comic book, with teachers melting and others exploding into flames while the world marches on in time to the music in this boy’s headphones.
Take away the fantasy and there is some very inventive and dynamic rock/metal music happening here. The drumming by Jon Olszony is excellent throughout, powering through the intense passages while adding spacey flourishes to the interludes. The vocals are well done with ample and multiple harmonies. Dafino obviously wanted to make a grand statement with their debut and they have. Perhaps now that they’ve gotten that out of their system they can focus on letting the music do more of the talking, something at which they are sure to excel.