The Dillinger Escape Plan – Calculating Infinity

It was the first, it’s still the best, and it will never be dethroned. The Dillinger Escape Plan’s ‘Calculating Infinity’ is just as much a masterpiece as you’ve heard from everyone else times a thousand for good measure. It, for all intents and purposes, created the ‘tech metal’ scene and on the way decapitated anyone who so much as looked at it funny. It’s a work of genius on a million different levels, not just for the genre that it created and to this day is the archtypical representation of, but for music as a whole.

Another reviewer, referring to a funeral doom band named Tyranny, once said oftentimes genres are worked out backwards; when a genre is established enough to be a collection of ideas and attributes, the genre is retroactively applied to its beginnings. When ‘Calculating Infinity’ came out, there was no established ‘tech metal’ scene, and while this would often have been described by the rather general phrase of ‘technical metal’, it wouldn’t have had any of the established connotations of what it means today. Back then, ‘Calculating Infinity’ was just this oddity that emerged out of nowhere to make something completely different. And when something is so new and so lacking in a descriptive term, it has to be taken at face value; there was no hand-waving and discounting this as ‘just another tech metal record’. It was listened to by everyone and examined for these new traits that it exhibited.

Later on, many bands emulated ‘Calculating Infinity’ and a handful of other albums (though the formerly mentioned was by far the biggest influence) and created what we now refer to commonly as tech metal. The thing is that no one has ever been able to replicate this album correctly; there’s a thousand attempted clonings every month, but they’ve never been able to crack the magic of this release. That’s because it’s obfuscated and intentionally misleading in what makes it so special. ‘Calculating Infinity’ immediately throws off those who can’t get past its chaotic surface; numerous reviewers called this stupid, meaningless noise when it came out. It continued to deceive many of the people who attempted to replicate its success, but the reason for this is a bit more complex.

You see, to replicate anything at all, you must reduce it down to a collection of traits and attributes. It could be a cake, a painting, an athletic technique, or an underground tech metal album: these are all things with visible traits that can be employed to replicate them. But regardless of how detailed the traits are, how obsessively they’re followed, something is necessarily lost in the translation. It’s impossible to replicate anything exactly, because the original was created at one moment, by specific people feeling and thinking specific things, and dozens of more intangible qualities like these throw off any attempt to shackle it down and clone it. There’s simply too many variables, too many infinite layers of meaning and artistry in every action, idea, and emotion. And yet, people persist, be it in whatever form they choose to attempt, refusing to acknowledge the fact that, no matter how precise, everything is MORE than a collection of traits, MORE than the superficial sum of its parts, and that what makes it more than this sum is what cannot ever be truly replicated. ‘Calculating Infinity’, no matter how reverse engineered, broken down, studied piece by piece and examined from any angle, can NOT be replicated because it is not merely a collection of traits to assimilate. Now, this whole lengthy paean on the nature of art is all well and good, but it, too, is leading to something greater. An idea that nearly the entire tech metal scene and musical community at large has failed to realize about ‘Calculating Infinity’. The thing that separates it from every other album ever made, and will continue to disconnect it from music at large. It is this, and this alone:

The technicality and tremendous instrumental skill presented on ‘Calculating Infinity’, in and of itself, is the LEAST important part of the album.

One of the major criticisms leveled at the tech metal scene is a perception that many of the bands are merely playing overly demonstrative songs that have no purpose but to express technicality and extremity. This perception is accurate; there’s a number of bands that really do nothing but attempt to be more technical than the next. Of course, this comes from the perspective of a man who would never describe himself as a tech metal fan; while I like a portion of the music, another portion of it seems very meaningless to me. This is why ‘Calculating Infinity’ is so appealing to me: it works on many levels that are not related to the technicality of the music. I often describe music like visual art, and more specifically, musical techniques as like the painter’s palette. More ‘colors’ on the palette (referring to technical skill) merely increases the detail of the images that you can show; it does not replace the painter’s stroke and clarity of vision (songwriting and artistry). ‘Calculating Infinity’ possesses an enormous palette, to be sure; but this does not negate the most crucial fact: that The Dillinger Escape Plan are truly artistic and gifted writers in the first place.

Yes, the music is mind-bendingly technical on all counts. Each member of the band is overflowing with talent on his respective instrument. But The Dillinger Escape Plan on this album never let technicality get in the way of songwriting, never got too full of their skills and felt a need to show off, and every note, no matter how bizarre, is carefully placed not to be difficult, but to better the songs themselves. Unlike many tech metal bands, ‘Calculating Infinity’ is not an album full of disconnected, extremely technical parts: this is an album of songs, and brilliant songs at those, songs which better represent tech metal than any other before or after. Technicality is used as a means to an end, and not an end itself. This album is technical out of NECESSITY, not out of a desire to be so, and each of the songs here needs the level of skill demonstrated in it to adequately express it to the listener.

Each song is completely unique, different, and utterly spectacular on all counts. Opener ‘Sugar Coated Sour’ is my personal favorite: a thousand plays has burned the opening drum/guitar intro irrevocably into my brain. It is the song that perfectly defines The Dillinger Escape Plan: hyperkinetic drums altering the musical plain with constant time signature changes, dizzying, atonal guitar acrobatics creating a musical flesh that is anything but solid, with riffs that spiral up and down the fretboard and only rarely repeat, and roaring, shrieking vocals, stuttering out brief fragments of enormously bitter, minimalist and stunted lyrics. Yet another feature of ‘Calculating Infinity’ is that it never gets TOO technical for the musicians themselves. In interviews, Mohammed Suiçmez of Necrophagist has stated that his band only really writes songs that take about 60% of their ability to play, allowing them to play with intensity and enthusiasm on stage without having to worry about perfection. The Dillinger Escape Plan is the same way: despite how complex the drumming is, Chris Pennie always sounds like he’s truly pounding the living shit out of his drumset, Ben Weinman and Brian Benoit sound like each chord is going to rip the strings from their guitars, and Dmitri Minakakis is going to finally start vomiting blood on this next line. Oh, wait, maybe this one. No, the next…

The music here is exquisitely crafted, and clearly composed in tiny stitches and fragments. And despite how intricate the compositions here are, they also feature a sort of brave minimalism: apart from the instrumental tracks and occasional small sections of the more typical songs, the music is very bare: only drums, guitar, bass, and voice is employed, and even they possess none of the flourishes of many neoclassical artists. Chris Pennie makes an art out of his employment of dynamics; he has exquisite control over the volume and precise sonic qualities of his drum kit. But you can’t help but later notice that there actually aren’t that many pieces: most of the drum sections on this album are composed merely of snare, bass, hi-hat, and a handful of cymbals. Guitar lines have a good deal more flourish to them, but there are still numerous riffs that are composed of just a handful of notes sharply stitching out micromelodies before diving upwards in some exquisite display of sweep picking. This juxtaposition of the layered and complex with the barren and minimal is just another element that has never been replicated as well by another artist.

While the compositions are highly chaotic, there are incredibly brief, agonizing fragments of emotional nakedness and melody, such as on ‘Destro’s Secret’. Not unlike Entombed’s ‘Uprising’, Dmitri Minakakis seems to not notice the clean break on this track; a man so used to shrieking in hatred that he’s unable to fully stop during a moment of tranquility. The mood on this album is undeniably aggressive and furious, but there are very brief periods of fragile beauty which add an entirely new dynamic to the proceedings. The album could almost be said to resemble a series of days filled with frustration, only interrupted by a brief glimpse of something beautiful (the clean breaks) or in the twilight realm of sleep (the instrumental tracks). Like much tech metal, ‘Calculating Infinity’ is packed to the brim with the tiny hates and annoyances of white-collar existence, a series of nine to five days which erode one’s soul until nothing is left but pure, seething venom towards the world that would force a man into such a position.

Perhaps the final note of considerable importance to what makes this album so exquisite is the lyrics. Every track has multiple phrases that immediately latch onto you and never quite go away (‘When rounding out breaks, the silent barrier…’, ‘I smell that whore!’, ‘Before dark I’m walking through the rain and scratching on her window screen…’, ‘Fuck you ’cause I’ve rotted!’, ‘Don’t! Fall! For me!’, et cetera ad infinitum), and they never lapse into the idiocy of ‘being random’ or weak attempts at humor/barely masked emo streams of consciousness. They’re more in the vein of J.R. Hayes’ ‘uncomfortably personal’ writings, albeit with markedly less fantastical content. Instead, they’re fragmented tales of everyday life; stories about being lonely, broken, pathetic. The tracks are about the agony of being a failure and self-loathing, and are remarkably realistic in every way. And when combined with the vocal performance of Dmitri Minakakis, they’re just made even more exquisite with his vehemence of delivery and bizarre, off-kilter rhythms. The words rarely… stream for more than a moment, at a time, and each word seems SHRIEKED and; broken up at irreg-ular intervals, and sentence,s, just kind of wander, with.! each concept breaking down: and eventually, just like the per-SON they describe;; they sort of… collapse and failjustlikethis.

(Originally written for


~ by noktorn on August 6, 2007.

2 Responses to “The Dillinger Escape Plan – Calculating Infinity”

  1. Calculating Infinity is pretty good from what I’ve heard. I can’t seem to remember to look for it when I have a few bucks to burn on metal. I finally got Lamb of God’s Sacrament for $10 woohoo!

    Still DEP is amazing, I was hooked as soon as I heard Panasonic Youth.

  2. 100% correct. a brilliant LP

    I Just interviewed Ben From Dillinger, have a read if you get a couple of minutes…

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