Omaha, Nebraska, 2001. For a select assemblage of musicians and their fans, there was no better time and place. More specifically, it’s the city and year that gave us Danse Macabre.
Due to a number of factors, most notably the Internet’s ability to build a global community at the click of a button, it’s unlikely that we will ever again experience a next-big-thing local music scene the way we saw places like Athens and Minneapolis blow up in the ’80s and Seattle explode in the ’90s. And when we look back at the time when music was still consumed in physical forms, Omaha will probably be remembered as the last city where a homegrown scene was developed organically with the assistance of local garages, basements, studios, clubs, and labels.
The Omaha scene that we’ve come to know and love reaches as far back as the early ’90s, but it wasn’t until the turn of the millennium that the rest of the world got hip to what was going on in the middle of America. Around this time—actually, almost exactly 10 years to the day that this is being written—I headed to eastern Nebraska with the magazine that I once edited, DIW, and we did our best to chronicle what we considered to be the most exciting and vibrant hotspot in the country. Sure, part of the appeal was that a city known mostly for a bajillionaire, the College World Series, and mail-order steak was suddenly dumping a huge pile of awesomeness into our record collections, but just as impressive was the fact that unlike most regional scenes, none of these bands sounded like the other. It was also difficult not to appreciate that despite the glaring spotlight on the town at the time, the family that made up Saddle Creek Records—in some cases actual siblings, but mostly just childhood friends—seemed to be taking everything in stride. No enlarging egos, no jealous backstabbing, just a group of hardworking Midwesterners happy to be sharing their music and stories with a world that had finally started to listen. Though Bright Eyes’ Conor Oberst had already achieved some commercial success, by the summer of 2002 the top dog in town was The Faint, thanks to the record that you now hold in your hands.
Though unquestionably confident and completely realized, Danse Macabre wasn’t the album anyone could have expected from the band that debuted in 1998 with Media, a perfectly fine post-hardcore record that, aside from the personnel that made it, has nothing to do with anything else in The Faint’s catalog. After shocking everyone but themselves with the retro dance-rock found on the following year’s Blank-Wave Arcade—the first to feature synth player Jacob Thiele—the group solidified its place in the underground’s upper echelon with Danse Macabre, a dark-wave masterpiece made well before the ’80s became a ubiquitous touchstone for contemporary bands with keyboards. In fact, it could easily be argued that the one-two punch of Blank-Wave Arcade and Danse Macabre helped usher in the era of the modern dance-rock act, predating bands like Franz Ferdinand, The Killers, and Bloc Party. From the middle of nowhere, The Faint had crafted a sound that was suddenly seemingly everywhere.
Whereas Blank-Wave was a raw exercise in bringing The Faint’s ecstatic basement shows into the studio, Danse Macabre was a sleek, shiny vehicle meant to evoke bumping Berlin dance clubs. Never mind that they could only dream of German techno while putting up with Cher remixes nearly 5,000 miles away at Omaha’s gay bars, the only places in town offering even close to what the guys wanted to hear when they went out.
There isn’t a single reason why Danse Macabre is considered part of Saddle Creek’s holy trinity (along with Cursive’s The Ugly Organ and Bright Eyes’ I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning), but rather a whole host of them: the perfectly aggressive synth lines, Todd Fink’s (née Baechle) menacingly effected vocals, the infectious dance beats, the intriguing bits of industrial and goth, and, at the heart of it all, strong songwriting featuring the kind of minor-key melodies that make singing along inevitable. Engineering and production by Mike Mogis as well as the addition of death-metal guitarist Dapose also helped raise the bar. And then there’s the concept, replacing Blank-Wave’s sexually charged atmosphere with the attitude that you should DIY before you D-I-E. Or, as a wise guidance counselor once said: Do what you love and you’ll never work a day in your life. After all, some of their heroes were punk-rock do-it-yourselfers like Fugazi and Sonic Youth.
“We thought about the Dance of the Dead, the Danse Macabre, being the working-for-a-living people going through these choreographed motions while they’re working,” says Thiele. “They’re doing a really stiff, boring dance that they don’t realize. We decided at some point that that was the Dance of the Dead.”
The guys took their own advice, quitting their day jobs and focusing all of their energy on the band. They also decided not to work with any of the major labels that came sniffing around after Danse Macabre, and Saddle Creek similarly decided to keep things on a smaller scale. It meant that the next big thing never got as big as expected, yet it resulted in Omaha never being forced to compromise its art for the sake of commerce.
“The songs aren’t really preaching how to be—they’re more like me setting myself straight, thinking about what I can say about the topic,” says Fink. “They’re kind of therapy for me.”
The most dramatic track that skewers the formulaic American dream, with its ominous lines about “the drones work hard before they die / and give up on pretty little homes,” shows up at the beginning of the album, and it’s no surprise that many fans, myself included, consider “Agenda Suicide” to be Danse Macabre’s highest of highlights. Those who have caught the band’s live show—and oh what a spectacular, fog-filled, strobe-lit event it is!—are familiar with MK12’s animated video featuring a man, his soul-sucking cubicle job, and his ultimate demise. (It’s also included on this reissue’s DVD.) More death and darkness await the listener as the nine-song album unfolds, including the harrowing “Violent,” written about Fink’s time spent at a seedy transient hotel in downtown Omaha (“It was like daycare for mean, psychotic people,” he says), as well as the self-explanatory “Ballad of a Paralysed Citizen,” described by Fink as “a sad example of heroism gone wrong.”
But even with all of the record’s heavy topics—some of which, less than a month after their Aug. 21, 2001, release, inadvertently became even more poignant in our post-9/11 world—the members of The Faint bristle at the thought of people assuming that they take themselves too seriously, to the point where they poke fun at themselves right there in the middle of Danse Macabre. “Your Retro Career Melted” is an acknowledgment that, yes, they know quite well that the core of their sound can be found in the past, and it also ends up serving as proof that “melted” is Fink’s favorite verb. True story.
So here we are 11 years after Danse Macabre was released, and it still sounds as essential and influential as it did on initial impact. And this remastered reissue has expanded the story with the inclusion of great bonus tracks from the time, including “Take Me to the Hospital” from the Saddle Creek 50 comp, “Dust” featuring Oberst (who was a member of Norman Bailer, the band that eventually became The Faint), and covers of Sonic Youth’s “Mote” and Bright Eyes’ “Falling Out of Love at This Volume.” And a look back at a club-ready classic wouldn’t be complete without a couple of remixes: Thin White Duke’s take on “The Conductor” from the Danse Macabre Remixes record and Out Hud’s remix of “Glass Danse” round out the celebration.
This retro career is alive and well. Let’s dance.