If I could choose one band to re-soundtrack the boneheaded early-90s Pauly Shore vehicle, Encino Man, it would have to be Baltimore’s Dope Body. Theirs is a sound redolent of that time period and its ethos as I like to re-imagine it, all waking to empty pizza boxes and the promise of a new day. Dope Body’s first album, 2011’s Nupping, was a pummeling synthesis of 90s aggro-rock, exuding the kind of funky aggression that made the early work of Red Hot Chili Peppers and Rage Against the Machine so cathartic and fun. Even in the zeitgeist of recycling 90s influences, there aren’t too many bands exploring this kind of moshable territory (perhaps at the risk of seeming too jockish or referential of the wasteland that is modern rock radio).
The band’s predilections would seem even more aberrant considering that Baltimore is their spawning ground. However, the band has spoken about the weirdness of the scene there and the general support that’s offered to those willing to plow a lonely, unloved furrow. Their newest LP, Natural History, is puzzling upon first listen. They’ve dialed down some of the frenzied tempos of Nupping to a knuckle-dragging stomp, weighing down their songs with the heaviness requisite to leaden headbanging, and despite the seeming aesthetic differences from the whimsy of Baltimore icons like Dan Deacon and Ponytail, Dope Body connects with them by lacing their heavy rock with transcendent goofiness. The absurd guitar stylings of Zeke Utz and vocalist Andrew Laumann’s ludicrous utterings contain more than a hint of knowing irony; in a recent interview, Utz said of the band’s creative process, “We play a riff and it almost sounds like a joke. Whether it’s absurdly distorted, or absurdly groovy, we just go with it. It feels good.” Indeed, there’s an undeniable feel-good factor in the quirky groove of a song like “Powder” or the high-wire guitar shredding and top-down sing-a-long in the decisively butt-rock “High Way.”
Nowhere is this populist tendency more prevalent than on the immensely catchy “Road Dog.” Featuring a pogo-worthy bass bounce and an extended Utz solo full of goofy guitar squiggles, Laumann’s chorus exhorts us to “Do what you wanna do/ See what you wanna see/ Go where you wanna go.” It’s a light-heartedness that’s undeniable even in the heavier numbers like “Beat,” in which Laumann bellows faux-tough-guy trash talk (which may or may not be an homage to Pantera). It’s an onslaught that’s present in other tracks like “Shook” and “Out Of My Mind,” which show the band’s predilection to exist at times as sort of a broken metal band, like if The Melvins were a product you could just buy and return because the guitar riffs were defective. “Twice the Life” is perhaps most exemplary of this tendency, a song in which Utz’s guitar stutters and backfires like a jalopy but also features a wonderfully out-of-place steel drum guitar effect. It’s a truly heavy song that still manages to laugh at itself, and it’s a bit of an anthem for Dope Body as Laumann begs us to consider the proposition of “Twice the shit/ But twice the life!”
But thats not to say Dope Body is a joke band. Quite the opposite. By deconstructing some of heavy rock’s tendencies, they manage to underline the convivial feeling that should be inherent in dancing like a fool in the middle of a moshpit. There’s a certain reverence in such an attempt, and it has to be considered quite an accomplishment that Dope Body have managed to make such a bruising, enjoyable record. From front to back, Natural History is a real treat on many levels, from the vocal dynamism of Laumann — whose bag of tricks is bottomless and always full of growls, weird ticks, and at times a gravely bellow reminiscent of Ian MacKaye — to Utz’s expressive guitar theatrics and an adamantium rhythm section. By skirting all the rules and reveling in heretofore questionable stylistic signifiers, Dope Body has made one of the most refreshing rock albums of the year, a collection of songs that advocate a form of moshpit populism that, even if you don’t quite get it immediately, will eventually win you over with big, sweaty hug after big, sweaty hug.