Like the proverbial grandpa who waltzes with everyone at a wedding, classical music has been the dancing partner of many other forms of music for a long time. Whether in terms of chord structure (remember this guy?) or instrument (bluegrass? jazz? Andrew Bird?), the music made and listened to these days is in some way or another the distant descendant of classical composition. And the relationship is productive in the other direction, too—think of the Vitamin String Quartet’s covers of contemporary artists as disparate as Kanye West and Guns N' Roses. All this isn’t to say that music these days is a reductive echo of classical; rather, it’s to say that classical music isn’t old. It’s been with us this whole time. You can’t really make it new again.
Which brings us to Miracles of Modern Science, five classically-trained Princeton grads who have sought to use their old-timey instruments (except that drum set) to rip up pop music's seams. The problem with this crusade is that there’s nothing to conquer, nothing to make new—in addition to those more subtle structural nods to our powder-wigged musical forefathers, pop music these days is replete with classical instrumentation. Every mainstream artist’s bid for a Dramatic, Meaningful Anthem happily makes use of a string section to give that last bridge or chorus some oomph, to make it sound worthy of the closing scene of some Oscar-winning film. And no decent nu-folk independent band worth its salt goes without a few strings, be they on cello or violin. And this often makes for some very good music.
In Dog Year, Miracles of Modern Science continues on the path carved out in its 2008 self-titled EP: the album is full of highly wrought, hook-laden compositions showcasing musical dexterity and a penchant for pushing their instruments’ sounds past traditional beauty into contemporary weirdness. The band is trying to make a string ensemble sound like a rock band, and they may have even succeeded in doing it. The problem is that the rock band that makes it out the other side isn’t that special, continually tripping over its own worthiness, forgoing the latent beauty in those old instruments in its rush to cross a genre-breaking finish line that doesn’t really exist.
Part of the issue is the band’s reliance on drums, which is odd, given the classical-instrument premise of the group. Drummer Tyler Pines goes berserk on most tracks, unleashing John Bonham-esque torrents of filler sound at every opportunity. This choice—to take hard rock and roll percussion over a more minimalist approach (like, say, Cream)—is the band’s most easily recognizable claim to rockdom. When most of the songs get going after intricate stringworked intros and verses, you pretty much just hear drums blasting away through every chorus. And that’s a shame, because the arrangements are interesting, performed to a tee, technically intricate and deserving of more air.
There’s plenty of foot-tapping to be had, though, when a song tones down the percussion. Opener “MOMS AWAY!” lets some hand-clapping take over the rhythm before the cymbals start crashing, and it shows that the band is capable of a little restraint even if it doesn’t much want to exercise it. A completely genuine what-the-fuck moment also ensues as the song fades to a weird, affected recording of someone exhorting Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, followed by a pretty standard lifting choir finish. The band can’t seem to shake its love for those theatrical finishes throughout the rest of the album: The following song, “Strangerous,” ends with the same cathartic noise (while those cymbals crash again). Nor are those overdone finishes flattering for Evan Younger’s voice, which flattens out for the high notes it wants to hit.
“Eating Me Alive” and “Luminol” take it a little easier, letting strong cello and mandolin lines, along with a little vocal effect, carry the songs forward. The drums stay subdued, at least till that last chorus, but by this point you’ve heard that soaring finish so consistently that it just washes over you. Most of “Space Chopper” is a fast-paced balancing act between violin, drums and backing vocals, but the familiar drum-fueled climax crashes the party again.
The dogged consistency of the album is its downfall. Almost every song trades originality for a song structure that gets old by the third track. In the end, Miracles of Modern Science don’t sound very new at all—as rock band or pop orchestra—and it has nothing to do with its instruments.