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’Sabella are revolutionizing the hi-hat cymbal. It’s the delicate fulcrum upon which their deceptively simple brand of downtempo rests, accumulating tension and releasing it all at once in four sharp ticks prior to each breakdown. In defiance of the very laws of hardcore, it doesn’t get old. We owe this little miracle to ’sabella’s continually refined songcraft, which had the opportunity to sprawl over the thirteen tracks of their debut full-length (doubling their existing output in one shot), but rejects it for a minimalistic tune-up of everything they already do best. In fact, DOG DAZE begins with co-vocalist Connor Hogan singing over nothing but some guitar strums and a few cold strikes of the hi-hat, triggering a Pavlovian response in listeners familiar with their EPs and split with Pennsylvania’s Kaonashi: limber up, because shit is about to go down. It’s there on “LONG STAYS” and “W CLINTON” too, lighting the fuse on the first of the album’s many excellent breakdowns, and propagates unease even on the album’s ballad, “RIVER.” The song never explodes, but while Hogan opens his heart to some lost love, we hear the bomb ticking quietly away in the background, eroding our security.
The hi-hat may be their secret weapon, but ’sabella is a force to be reckoned with anyway, now more than ever. The band’s hand-and-soft dynamic has never been more divided than on DOG DAZE, but neither have the poles of their sound ever been this potently represented. As our own Alex Brown phrased it, DOG DAZE can sometimes come across like “a mixtape of ideas for live [shows],” which is true--usually (or at least as it used to be), the heavy and the light would operate side-by-side on a ’sabella track. “Frostmourne” softballs the listener before dropping the hammer, but DOG DAZE sees ’sabella taking a different approach, distilling the basic components of their music out, smearing them across thirteen little petri dishes, and sitting back to watch what happens. The clean stuff grows folksier and more introspective on “APRILED,” “RIVER.,” and “GREEN THUMBED,” which could have made for a fine little experiment of an EP all on their own, while the harsh stuff mutates into the tectonic heaviness of “WHISPER,” “WARS,” “WAIST DEEP,” and “THE NOISE.” Hogan takes the lead on the former material, his alternative-indie timbre totally at odds with his bloodcurdling scream (play “GREEN THUMBED” and “THUNDER BAY” to someone who has never heard the band before, and the chances they would recognize them as songs by the same band are guaranteed to be slim), while second vocalist Markus Russo, whose hellraising shout makes a proper foil to Hogan, also flexes his gritty Never Home growl on the heavier fare.
In between, we get a fascinating tour of ’sabella’s expanding sonic palette. “W CLINTON” and “UP LIKE THIS” embrace the Korn Theory of doing more with less as the former consists almost entirely of bends, feedback, and even some tasteful chugging (’sabella frequently do the impossible). While their approach to riffing is more traditional on back-to-back “FREE FALLIN” and “LEAD ME TO THE DANCE FLOOR,” they showcase vastly different textures despite being cast from the same mold. “FREE FALLIN,” for example, brandishes a Swiss Army knife of a riff that is by turns 1) danceable, 2) headbangable, and 3) knock-a-motherfucker-out-able, while “LEAD ME TO THE DANCE FLOOR” is a funky and infectious track thanks to some tightly-woven guitar/drum interplay and the most tongue-in-cheek lyrics on DOG DAZE. On the other end, “THE NOISE” is unfiltered crowdkill brimming with gutbucket guitar tones and topped with a murderous call-out of “I spy a bitch in disguise!” that will put people on stretchers (having witnessed them live once already, I can say that's not much of an exaggeration). This is one of a number of lyrical gems which ’sabella seem to drop effortlessly from track to track, whether it’s the soul-baring mission statement of “THUNDER BAY” (“I don’t believe in soulmates / and I don’t believe in God / I could fall in love with anyone / if given the time”) or the album’s emotional centerpiece on “RIVER.,” a heartbroken (and heartbreaking) portrait of failed millennial love: “And then the sun came up / and I made you breakfast / dressed in nothing but the way you hold me in your mind / I swear I’m better when I’m gone.”
Admittedly, the sectoring of ’sabella’s sound hurts the record a little. It’s easy to imagine how stitching some tracks together might have benefited DOG DAZE in the long run (“APRILED” and “LONG STAYS” is a no-brainer; “WAIST DEEP” and “THE NOISE” could have banged even harder as a single piece), but it will, in time, be regarded as a milestone in ’sabella’s evolution, and not just because it’s their first full-length. Although it lacks the atmospheric unity of their half of the Never Home split, DOG DAZE is thematically airtight and sees the band relentlessly interrogating the core of their songwriting from thirteen different directions. Once again, we can’t discount the fact that this album now comprises more than half of their recordings. There’s a strong chance that whatever direction ’sabella chooses to take from here on, the way is mapped out somewhere in the experiments of DOG DAZE. I look forward to what’s next.