When Dikembe released their debut EP Chicago Bowls in 2011, among the clamoring opinions "hey, more emo revival" or "damn, those kids love pot" came one crystalizing thought: about fucking time. For a music scene as diverse as it is defined, over the last two decades Gainesville was more or less characterized by two bands and the "genres" for which they were poster children: Hot Water Music (gruff, bearded flannel punk) in the 90s; Against Me! (hippie folk punk) in the 00s. Dikembe's arrival along this linear timeline wasn't so much serendipitous as cosmically planned. With emo in full swing at notâ€"soâ€"distant locales such as Philadelphia and the Midwest, the basketballâ€"loving, weedâ€"smoking, Freaks and Geeksâ€"admiring dudes in Dikembe full of angsty energy and tongues burned deep in their cheeks were ostensibly positioned to endorse Gainesville's next identity. And they are it's just not the one everyone thought.
Dikembe is a band in transition. After their first proper fullâ€"length, 2012's Broad Shoulders, it was clear emo with its high guitar tones, noodly solos, punctured riffs and oneâ€"dimensional vocals was not their end game, and this could be seen on the peripherals ("Not Today, Angel", strangely out of place on Shoulders, is fitting in retrospect). In contrast, their latest record, Mediumship, feels realized: serious, spacey songs that relinquish emo vestiges for grunge chords, sparse guitar work, and (for the most part) reserved vocals. They may still play shows with bands like Glocca Morra and Free Throw, but they share beds with Athletics and Balance and Composure artists that reached back into alternative's treasure trove for inspiration and returned with gold. On Mediumship, Dikembe are doing their own digging. "Even Bother" opens the album with soft, palm muted guitar, but it's Steven Gray's vocals the cause the first balk: the heady, demurred cadence instantly recounts Brand New's Jesse Lacey postâ€"Deja Entendu. "It's been a long time coming. It's been a long time rotting before I got going," Gray quietly repeats his voice so fragile the "be" of "before" is barely audible the first time, and then a drum hit signals blaring guitars. While Dikembe reign in their instruments, settling on a steady beat and composed guitars, Gray's voice still quivers under the weight, only briefly exhibiting the strength seen on earlier releases when he had the confidence of his convictions, regardless of their value be it pinning loss or repulsed dismissal.
Yet, Gray's timid vocals appear to be the result of group's reformatted approach. Mediumship is an exercise in spatial organization, trading Dikembe's predilection towards tempo changes for ventures in volume dynamics. "Hood Rat Messiah" epitomizes the soft/loud dyad through exiguous guitars marginalized by feedback and a snare/ride cymbal beat that creates a desperate void for Gray's looming vocals to occupy. When the climax erupts with full distorted guitars, Gray's volume remains the same a technique designed to conceptualize the manufactured space. "Gets Harder" the longest song at just over four minutes (on a 10â€"track album that barely breaks the half hour mark) is more conventional: the riffâ€"driven chorus acts as an outpost in between softer verses full of confessional sentiments like "I built this house and there's no one;" "I never said anything that I didn't mean;" "Then again, maybe I'm mess."
Such posturing may disappoint fans of emo's acerbic writing style. But Gray's sincerity hasn't changed; how it's expressed has. "Before I laid in bed with the devil, I came to God with a plea," he sings on "Las Vegas Weather". "Let's put our two heads together and make a man out of me." The style works to double its import: the emotional gravity explicit in what he submits is equaled by the implicit ambiguity he won't admit. Incidentally, Gray is prone to making these portentous statements right before Dikembe's fragile environment is about to break, which is exactly what happens here: Gray screams over a deafening force of guitars and drums. This happens a lot.
Not every song follows a restrain/release model, but most do. When Dikembe gets a little creative, it's to their benefit. "Donuts In A Six Speed" is memorable due to its nonâ€"traditional structure and angular, mathâ€"y portions. "Mad Frustrated" starts out jamming and features a lengthy outro that includes a stringed instrument, bolstering Dikembe's repertoire. But aside from a few novelties (the song titles reference some of hip hop's finest, and weirdest), Mediumship suffers from a lack of distinction, which affects its replay value. In the same way various art in the Louvre contribute to the museum's experience, you don't visit to see Liberty Leading the People: you go for the Mona Lisa. It's no surprise why "Hood Rat Messiah", "Snakes In My Path" and "Gets Harder" all got the preview treatment yes, those songs are similar to the point of disappointing, but they also have the strongest, most affable melody, which is significant. While the other tracks fit within the context of the album as a whole and are certainly enjoyable to a more dedicated fan they are lackluster for the casual listener. Mediumship represents a band that is quickly joining the ranks of those that defined Gainesville's music scene in years past even if this record isn't indicative of their future legacy.