The Anniversary

Danse Macabre Turns 20

Saddle Creek
Saddle Creek

When the Faint first walked onstage, the first thing that anyone in the band said wasn’t really a word — or, at least, I don’t think it was a word. It was more like: “Bwwwaaaow.” My memory here is a little hazy, and I don’t remember exactly who said that “bwwwaaaow.” (It was probably the late keyboardist Jacob Thiele, but I couldn’t swear to that.) I just remember the wave that went through that audience when that “bwwwaaaow” rang out. It was like: Oh, shit. This is it. It’s on. And it really was on.

This was February of 2002 at Northsix, the venue that would later become the Music Hall Of Williamsburg. I’d taken a Greyhound bus from Syracuse to New York for this. It seemed like just about the coolest night I could imagine. This was at the height of electroclash, the brief and short-lived boom-time for cheap cocaine and sparkly silver jackets and dinky, haphazardly programmed keyboards. A friend had invited me to the birthday party for a member of Fischerspooner, which was happening in the same neighborhood later that night. (We left that function quick. It was just people in fancy clothes standing around and being boring.) At Northsix, the Faint’s opening act was Soviet, the band of Syracuse transplants whose New Ordery love-jam “Candy Girl” had been the only really good song on Electroclash, the compilation that gave that little mini-genre its name. Soviet were good. They should’ve been a bigger deal.

In the brief little moment that electroclash was a thing, it got breathless hype in the sorts of places where music in that era got breathless hype. (At that point, it was NME and Vice driving that stuff. Pitchfork’s real heyday would start a year or two later.) Electroclash gave the world a couple of bangers, like Fischerspooner’s “Emerge,” but most of it was built around quasi-ironic glamor, an art-school take on ’80s excess that felt more like cosplay than anything else. Most of that shit — Peaches, Miss Kitten and the Hacker, ARE Weapons, Avenue D, every non-“Emerge” Fischerspooner song — is shit that can stay in 2002. The Faint were different, and you could feel it in the air the moment that they stepped on that stage in Brooklyn that night.

Electroclash was primarily a New York thing. The Faint were not. The Faint came from Omaha, from the same tight-knit Saddle Creek scene that produced Bright Eyes and Cursive. Those bands didn’t sound anything like each other, but they all shared histories and played on each other’s records. The Faint worked from the same set of influences as their New York contemporaries, mostly spartan British synthpop like Gary Numan, Depeche Mode, Soft Cell, and the early Human League. But the Faint attacked that stuff from a completely different angle. They played that stuff like they were a punk band.

When I saw them at Northsix, the Faint had been around for something like seven years. They’d started off as an indie rock act, and Conor Oberst an early version of the band, which had the terrible name Norman Bailer. But the members of the group had gotten into keyboards and wiry beats and cool clothes, and they’d adjusted their music accordingly. The members of the Faint were young, but they were old enough to remember when those ’80s sounds were new and alien. At a time when nobody in the underground universe wanted to fuck with ’80s new wave, when that stuff was about as uncool as Creed and Staind are now, the members of the Faint were into it. Those sounds set them apart.

By the time I saw them, the Faint had time to work out the kinks. Their second album, 1999’s Blank-Wave Arcade, was clearly onto something, even if the main thing that everyone remembered about it was how horny it was. (On a nine-song album, the Faint used the word “sex” in three different song titles.) But where Blank-Wave Arcade had been rough, the band’s next album, 2001’s Danse Macabre, was the sound of a band figuring out exactly what it had to do. Danse Macabre, which turns 20 tomorrow, was slick and hard and streamlined and mean. The Faint arrived right on time to capitalize on all that electroclash noise, but Danse Macabre was light years beyond anything that the band’s contemporaries were doing. It came from a completely different plane of existence.

That “bwwwaaaow” that I heard that night in Brooklyn was a vocoder. It was a motherfucker just running up to a microphone and yelling into a vocoder. In that pre-Auto-Tune era, this was not something that we were used to hearing, especially in indie rock clubs. The sound was vast and alien, like Soundwave from Transformers had just run up onstage and grabbed the mic. Everything about the Faint’s sound was cold and harsh and clinical, but it was also physical. It demanded response. Anyone who’d heard Danse Macabre knew that the Faint were light years beyond what any other retro-synthpop acts were doing in 2002. The Faint weren’t an art-school synthpop act. They were a Midwestern punk band playing synthpop. They threw themselves around the stage like a punk band. They built up to screaming climaxes like a punk band. They rocked like a punk band. This was crucial.

On “Glass Danse,” the clubbiest track from Danse Macabre, the Faint expressed something like total contempt for the entire club universe: “Watch as mirrors clear themselves with the breath of frigid air that eased in/ Made up babies all rotate as a siren spins a beam of amber.” Frontman Todd Baechle, now Todd Fink, wrote lyrics about wage slavery, about stultifying boredom, and about the grim ironies that you might see in your own life as you look back in your deathbed. Those lyrics were dark and arch and at least a little bit pretentious, but Fink sang them with frantic urgency, and the rest of the band played them with a driving intensity. That combination worked.

When the Faint recorded Danse Macabre, with future Bright Eye Mike Mogis producing, they’d just brought in a former death metal guitarist who went by the single-word name Dapose. In a very real way, the Faint sounded like a band on Danse Macabre. The album had bleepy keyboards all over it, but it also had a fully locked-in rhythm section and a revved-up guitar. Danse Macabre is a short album, nine songs in 35 minutes, and it never lets up. Every track hits like an anthem. When I first heard this thing in the summer of 2001, my brain pretty much exploded. The Faint were the band that I was looking for, and I didn’t even know it.

That summer, I was an intern at the Baltimore City Paper, my local alt-weekly, and I’m pretty sure I ran into the music editor’s office yelling about this album the day after I got it. He let me write about the band in print, and I think Danse Macabre was the second album I ever got paid to review. (The first was a Bay Area underground rap compilation called The Funky Precedent 2. Each review, if I remember right, paid $33.)

When I finally saw the Faint at Northsix, I was about as fired up as I’ve ever been for a show. The show delivered. I remember this as a night where the whole crowd was ready to lose its shit for this band and where this band fully, completely delivered. I took my little brother, and we both walked out of there screaming at each other. He told me it was the best show he’d ever seen, and that it would’ve melted his circuits at every point in his musical development. (He was 19 then, but he’d already been through metal and industrial and goth and punk.) This was a planets-aligning night, a perfect moment. I wonder how many moments like that the Faint got to have.

That night, it seemed like the Faint could become the biggest band on the planet. It didn’t happen. They turned down major-label deals, and their next album, 2004’s Wet From Birth, didn’t quite have the same spark. I saw them touring behind that album, with TV On The Radio opening, and it was a fun night, but it wasn’t a brain-exploder. The Faint kept making music intermittently, and I have it on good authority that people still lose their shit when they play. But that moment happened, and that moment ended.

Electroclash didn’t last. I can’t imagine anyone thought it would last. By the time I saw the Faint, the garage rock revival was already in full swing, and the decidedly non-synthy bands who put out records that summer were the ones who still get festival-headliner spots today. In a Pitchfork interview last year, Conor Oberst said that he thought the Faint probably regretted turning down the deals they were offered: “Clark’s bartending and Todd is, like, making hats, you know? But if they would have done it at the right time, they would have been the hugest fucking band.” He’s right.

Especially given how much of Danse Macabre is about the slow death of wage slavery, I wish that Todd Fink didn’t have to, like, make hats now. I wish Jacob Thiele hadn’t died in 2020. I wish the Faint had become the hugest fucking band. But they did have a moment. That one night in 2002, none of the bands who did become huge were fit to touch the Faint’s vocoder.

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