By Zachary Swickey
Some bands or artists may not have platinum albums or chart-topping hits, but they are still critically favored and have loyal, cult-like fanbases. Take for example Ryan Adams or even The Mars Volta – both are revered by fellow musicians and their fans flock to their performances. They may not be selling out arenas, but their attendees know every word to every song. The same can be said about Dredg, an enthralling experimental rock band based out of the Bay area.
Dredg consists of four friends from Los Gatos, California, who have weathered the storm and managed to stay together for well over a decade. The best way to listen to them is in a live setting: Bassist Drew Roulette plays barefoot due to all the triggers and pedals he must set off; drummer Dino Campanella can be seen playing the piano and drums simultaneously on occasion; guitarist Mark Engles shreds on his guitar with insane ferocity; while singer Gavin Hayes often wails on a slide guitar (even known to snap a screwdriver in half while playing with it). Roulette and Hayes are even known to raffle off some of their paintings at their shows. The band has a chemistry and musicianship that is quite rare, something you only see in bands like the Red Hot Chili Peppers, as if they were born to play together.
They’ve been around awhile – one of their first touring mates was Alien Ant Farm if that says anything – independently releasing their first album, Leitmotif, back in ’98 at a time when gladly forgotten bands like Limp Bizkit ruled the charts. While a solid first effort, Dredg truly stepped up their game with their followup release, El Cielo – translated as “Heaven” or “Sky” in English. El Cielo is a concept album about sleep paralysis, a phenomena that occurs when someone’s body is shut-down deep in the REM cycle while sleeping, yet is self-aware, unable to move.
The album is full of thought-provoking lyrics such as “babies are born in the same buildings where people go to pass away,” which doesn’t sound like it would roll off the tongue, but singer Gavin Hayes recites everything with a poet-like charisma (resembling a modern-day Jim Morrison when performing). El Cielo paints a thick atmosphere throughout with hints of Indian-influence – strings abound and there are sounds that were likely obtained using unorthodox recording methods. Even the instrumental segues that connect the hour-long album are must-listens. Oh, and did I mention the album was recorded at George Lucas’s Skywalker Ranch?
For their third album, Dredg hired legendary producer Terry Date (Deftones, Soundgarden, Pantera) to man the boards. The outcome, Catch Without Arms, is a more straightforward rock record with blistering, heavy-hitting songs like “Hung Over on a Tuesday” and “The Tanbark is Hot Lava.” The album throws some curve balls with groovy tracks like “Zebraskin” and “Sang Real,” which further illustrate the evolution of the group.
The beauty of Dredg is that every album they release sounds completely different. While some fans embrace this, others decry it. Such was the case with their next album: The Parrot, The Pariah, The Delusion. Released in June 2009, the album was inspired by controversial author Salman Rushdie’s “Imagine There Is No Heaven: A Letter to the Six Billionth Citizen.” Despite the heavy inspirational material, the album leaned towards a more pop-oriented sound, and once again proved that Dredg isn’t afraid to take chances and constantly evolve musically. The lyrics of Hayes are a highlight again, “There is no need to complain / ‘Cause we’ve been ignoring this warning” (taken from “Mourning this Morning”). “Light Switch” sounds like the beginning of a wicked, spaghetti-western with the Southern drawl of the guitar. The group’s musicianship shines wildly on “Gathering Pebbles” with Campanella’s quirky-but-precise drumming, Engles’s brooding guitar licks, and a bouncy, old-school keyboard sound keeping the pace.
Dredg fans would be divided even further with their next release, this year’s Chuckles and Mr. Squeezy (yeah, I have no clue either). Unarguably their most experimental effort to date, the album was helmed by underground hip-hop superproducer, Dan the Automator (Gorillaz, Del the Funky Homosapien). Opening with a beat that sounds like something out of a circus, “Another Tribe” is a great way to begin the album – it’s a freakishly catchy tune. “Somebody is Laughing” is one the album’s strongest, and once again takes on religion – "So many people looking for answers / So many people forget to exist” – yet there is a chorus of poppy “oh’s” and “ahs” still to be found. “The Thought of Losing You” is a beautiful love letter with lyrics urging one to not give up on love, or perhaps life even. Overall, the album is their most ambitious to date, thanks in part to Dan the Automator, who the band considered to be an unofficial fifth member for the effort.
It’s no wonder why you can name drop Dredg to a band, and receive an enthusiastic response – the group has never let their sound grow stale and make music for themselves out of their sheer passion for it. Simply put, Dredg makes music for all the right reasons, which is a rewarding experience for anyone willing to listen.