"Den of Maniacs" is the fourth and latest release from Chicago-based composer, singer-songwriter, and guitarist Dan Wallace.
Mark Suppanz, The Big Takeover Magazine
On his fourth album, this Chicago-based troubadour and ex-Pindrops frontman serves up another nourishing helping of stylish indie rock with pinches of classical seasonings, playing most everything himself. Outside of the opening guitar workout "Look at Me," and the bouncy, electro-poppy "Take It Back," his mood is quieter and more introspective. He's also nostalgic, reworking two songs from 2006's debut Neon and Gold, "Vante Left Them Human" and "Fell," in an unplugged form with Emanuel Ban's spirited violin accompaniment, and providing a new vocal take for "I Want to Be" (previously sung by guest Robin Morgan on 2007's Culture of Self). Despite his aching and despondent lyrics, varied songs such as the sweeping, orchestral "Go Away," Django Reinhardt-inspired "Morceau," and piano-driven "Fever" ensure the LP is another unqualified winner.
Bert Saraco, The Phantom Tollbooth
Once again, we get the slightly askew brilliance of Dan Wallace on Den of Maniacs, a project sure to delight some and to confuse others...
The fourth outing by Dan Wallace, Den of Maniacs, reinforces the artist's steadfast dedication to his particular vision – his Culture of Self, if you will (to borrow the phrase from a previous album). Possessing all of the tools needed for crossover success -– the ability to write songs with hooks, a flexible vocal range, and all of the required rock and roll musical chops – Wallace instead walks a musical road less traveled, and a bizarrely picturesque road it is.
In somewhat of a surprise move, Wallace starts the album off with one of the most immediately accessible tracks he's ever done –- the hard-rock (mock-rock?) “Look at Me,” which asks, “hey you there look at me / tell me, tell me, help me - tell me what you see / am i the same man i used to be? different, changed, or in between? / am i soft now or too extreme? / tell me tell me help me tell me what you see...” The song seems to give the average rock & roll consumer what he wants to hear on a surface level while at the same time asking why he wants to hear it - Wallace shows us, for the moment, a rock star persona with thundering drums, pounding bass and fiery guitar solos, all supporting questions posed in his Ray Collins style falsetto vocal, as if to illustrate the fact that all might not be exactly as it seems.
The rock star facade falls away with the second track, where we begin to hear more typically adventurous music with the sweetly macabre sounding “Go Away,” a rock carnival waltz featuring some complex guitar work under wonderfully-arranged vocal melody and back-up harmony interplay.
Wallace has a distinctive sound, primarily featuring a variety of keyboard effects, his wonderful guitar playing, compositions that are irresistibly melodic and full of surprising twists and turns, and his immediately identifiable vocals. A multi-instrumentalist, Wallace essentially plays everything you hear on the album, with a brief assist from George Lawler on drums (“Look at Me,” and “Go Away”) and Emanuel Ban on violin (“ Vante Left Them Human” and “Fell”).
To say that this music is unusual would be an understatement. “Spiders in Heaven” starts out sounding like Django and The Hot Club of France in Dante's Inferno, “Fell (For two Musicians and a Computer)” ends up with a Sufjan Stevens-like crescendo, and the wonderfully complex “I Want to Be (Ensemble Version)” is, in parts, reminiscent of Frank Zappa's “Uncle Meat.” Keeping those comparisons in mind, the fact that Wallace occasionally seems to channel Brian Wilson (perhaps a _demented_ Brian Wilson – or is that redundant?) is quite interesting (one track actually starts with the words, “God only knows...”).
Lyrically, Wallace is fairly obscure, but always compelling, writing in a poetic form more often than creating a linear narrative – from “Fever,” the last song on the CD:
what’s one more dusty faith clutched closer in the maze
whose walls are portrait lined?
it’s not fine, it’s a fever spreading like tar
it’s a fever dripping down from above ...
Always interesting, sometimes challenging, undeniably memorable, Den of Maniacs shows Dan Wallace in a slightly more accessible mode, but still as intriguing as ever. You don't have to be a maniac to like this, but it helps.
Jon Worley, Aiding & Abetting
This album has quite possibly the worst cover in history. The thumbnail doesn't do it justice. Luckily, I know Dan Wallace and I know that what lies inside is so much better than any cover.
Wallace tends to shift his musical focus from album to album. Everything connects to atmospheric rock at some point, but he's wandered off on roots trails and even gotten a little punky at times. This outing finds him settling into lush (or at least full) arrangements and tightly-crafted songs decorated by the occasional tangent.
But, of course, eclecticism rules. Wallace never fails to surprise, and I've always liked the inventive nature of his music. He has a fascinating approach to melody (rarely straightforward), and he sometimes uses rhythm as an idea separate from the rest of the song. That's even cooler than you might think.
Once I've reviewed an artist a few times, I often get a little bored. Even the best can settle into a rhythm and coast a bit. While Wallace might have coasted on the cover (sorry, I just had to say it), he still goes at his music full bore. Still amazing after all these years.