The opening of Dreamend’s fourth album So I Ate Myself, Bite By Bite starts with the innocently titled ‘Pink Cloud In the Wood’, its layers of tinkling xylophones, soft banjos and piano as soothing as the name suggests. From this intro alone, which ends with the hum of crickets interspersed with a delicate piano tune, there is no inkling of the menacing undertones of the album’s concept as a tale of murder and madness.
As the solo effort of Ryan Graveface, owner of Chicago’s Graveface Records and part time member of psychedelic folk troupe Black Moth Super Rainbow, Dreamend fits in somewhere between the electronic nature of BMSR and the experimental folk genre. Crafting his album with a little help from his old band mates as well as other Graveface affiliates The Appleseed Cast, So I Ate Myself documents the thoughts and emotions of a killer as he plots, contemplates and carries out murder. The result is an album that takes on a visual role, as well as an aural one; a narrative that utilises a banjo, bells, guitar, violin, and organ as the unnamed protagonist’s weapons.
After the album’s innocuous opener, Dreamend continues the narrative with ‘Where You Belong’. This is the closest the album comes to Dreamend’s electronic connections, its muted electric organ melodies overriding the song and giving way to a more dreamy, lo-fi feel that disconnects it from the rest of the album’s banjo-led songs.
The inclusion of ‘Interlude’ further illustrates the album’s concept as an unravelling story; its lack of lyrics and repetitive guitar strums the calm before the narrator’s descent into murder. ‘A Thought’ is another instrumental affair, save for the ongoing chants of “I cannot stop in the middle.” Not only is this song in the centre of the album, further highlighting the narrative codes contained within the lyrics, it also transforms from a banjo solo into an intensified post rock frenzy of distorted guitars and feedback, presumably signifying the act of murder itself.
The beauty of this album is that it can be listened to as fragmented, individual tracks, or in its entirety, its plot unfolding within the listener’s ears. On its own the upbeat ‘Pieces’, with its banjo lines, xylophones and echoing falsetto tones, can be enjoyed as a perfect example of modern Americana. Yet within the confines of the album’s tale, the cheery vocals mask more sinister lyrics, “I can’t believe just yesterday/ I clean my hands and wash the blood away” contrasting deeply with earlier lines such as “I looked at the sky today and I thought I love the sun.” It is moments like this where Dreamend’s ability to both shock and subvert are heard most clearly; while the melodies and vocals lull you into a sense of splendour, the ominous lyrics pierce and drag you back towards the murder scene.
Adding to the album’s appeal is its artwork, its pop-up sleeve remaining coherent with Graveface Records’s track record for aesthetically unusual album artwork. So I Ate Myself takes on the form of a phenakistoscope, a classic Victorian animation machine. These Victorian visuals bring to mind Stephen Sondheim’s world of Sweeney Todd, and also recall Sondheim’s own ability to blur the lines between beauty and the macabre in a similar vein to that of So I Ate Myself.
The album’s dramatic 10-minute closer ‘An Admission’ transforms multiple times within the song. Starting with a sole banjo, the song introduces layered vocals, squealing guitars and military style drumming, interspersed with moments of softness, ahead of a crescendo of orchestrated noise, distortion and feedback that forms the song’s climax, before gradually imploding into nothing. It is this steady silence that allows the listener to finally reflect upon the often-puzzling tale that has been woven through the lyrics, and like a good thriller film, try to piece it together and gain understanding.
Despite these complexities, it is ultimately the album’s dark undertones and sinister lyrics juxtaposed with its upbeat tempo and beautiful melodies that make So I Ate Myself such an exciting, if eerie, album. With its companion piece due for release in 2011, one can only imagine what terrifying delights will accompany Dreamend’s next narrative.