A Giant Dog’s Bite, the Austin, Texas, group’s first batch of new material since 2017’s Toy, bills itself as a concept album, but Avalonia (the invented realm in which the action takes place) bears little difference from the modern United States. It’s a technocracy, a place where cyberspace trumps embodiment, and in A Giant Dog’s telling, it’s unclear which force will ultimately triumph—the artificial “synthemotional,” or the all-too human urge to “tear apart the place” in search of a tangible, equitable paradise. We live in a society, indeed, and the band explores this unfortunate fact through nine rollicking, anthemic rock songs laced with a defiant yawp that’s alternately convincing and contrived.
Bite boasts a similar fervor to 2016’s Pile, whose “I’ll Come Crashing” sounds like the ne plus ultra of skate video soundtracks, but where previous songs read like dispatches from the edge of a brawl, the group’s latest is infused with glam-rock gloss and grandeur. “Happiness Awaits Inside” opens with a few instrumental bars that channel T. Rex by way of Ennio Morricone, and when Sabrina Ellis sings, “Sew me a gown I’m going downtown/In the fabric of space and time,” it feels like swaggering into a saloon on Orion’s Belt. Ellis’ languorous, sneering vocals on “A Daydream” counter quivering strings and a rumbling bassline, a jaguar pacing through a swarm of bees before the last few seconds descend into delightful chaos. The driving tempo and fevered drumming on “In Destiny” call back to the best of the band’s back catalog, an Iron Maiden canticle as at home in a game of Crazy Taxi as it would be on some hero’s journey.
But amid this fierceness, some facets of the album crumble under closer scrutiny. “Different Than” opens promisingly with a Bratmobile riff and an earworm melody, but midway through, it gives way to a “Fight Song”-style chorus, the sort of triumph that feels suspiciously hollow. A similarly jarring switch happens in “Watch It Burn,” which starts with a come-hither acknowledgement of “heavy, heavy justice,” then devolves into what sounds like the final act of a stage musical. “One of these days, I’ll learn/You just have to watch it burn,” the band sings together like the cast of Les Misérables.
Part of the issue is the haziness of Avalonia itself, which seems to exist in contrast to humanity, “a law that’s written on your soul,” as Ellis sings on “Watch it Burn.” Is it a cloud-hosted version of reality, with all the same injustices? Bite’s least successful songs never quite galvanize the listener, relying either on platitudes or vagaries. (A persona on “Daydream” implores, “Human, where’d you get your arms from?/Use them, just like an algorithm./ Your body was never ever welcome./There’s peace here in Avalonia.”) The rallying cries themselves aren’t particularly clear, except as an acknowledgement of us (the marginalized) versus them (the marginalizers). Without a guide to Avalonia’s characters, without a sense of how this world’s battles differ from the ones happening in the here and now, it’s hard to know precisely the direction in which to channel righteous rage, or if it’s worth summoning at all.
In the press release accompanying the record, the band describes developing an entire cosmos, peopled by characters they “had to find ourselves within, or project ourselves into.” That process ultimately seems like it was more rewarding for the musicians than for their listeners. The album’s alternate universe and its residents remain as blurry as the last frame of a vision test. But in the moments that it comes into focus, Bite is ferocious and fun: a zip code you probably wouldn’t move to, but engaging enough as a dystopian tourist destination.
All products featured on Pitchfork are independently selected by our editors. However, when you buy something through our retail links, we may earn an affiliate commission.