Our story opens with Angelella onstage at a North Philadelphia rock club, his hair flailing, his guitar strings rattling, his face beaming. It’s 2009 or thereabouts, and he’s performing with one of his old bands, a punky Americana group with such high energy, folks are hanging out after the show to shake his hand. A couple months later, a different venue, a different scene entirely – an eclectic hip-hop outfit, and there he is again, rocking out on guitar. Later still, Angelella’s face keeps showing up in band photos, on show flyers and venue websites. His enthusiasms run the gamut – experimental lo-fi psych, indie rock soul, arty grunge throwbacks. The question has to be asked - are you in every group in Philadelphia? He laughs, responds: No man, just a bunch of projects.
Meanwhile in South Philly, Brent “Ritz” Reynolds was holed up in a studio, making a name for himself as a young hip-hop producer. He cut tracks for The Roots, worked with Mac Miller and State Property alum Peedi Crakk. Reynolds knew his stuff and had the moxy for the hard haul of being a freelance recording guru. In early 2010 he and Angelella connected in a chance recording session, and the doors of possibility were blown open. Angelella’s songwriting would become a prototype for Reynolds to test out his lush, imaginative production skills into the rock world. Conversely, Reynolds’ studio alchemy would place Angelella’s broad-spanning tastes and musical interests under a single umbrella. You don’t have to be in a dozen different-sounding bands and call them a dozen different things. You can do it all, and call it Drgn King.
On Drgn King’s sophomore LP, front man Dominic Angelella tells the story of growing up in Baltimore, MD aka Mobtown (various slogans include "The City That Reads" and "The Greatest City In America). Baltimore Crush is a song cycle that trips through time, re-visiting rock 'n' roll ghosts, churning in the undertow of the present and imagining worlds to come. The songs revolve around a community of disenfranchised kids looking for kicks while trying to make a world they can call their own. An underground music scene in a church basement flourishes until various forms of mayhem derail the DIY dream. Angelella's singing and guitar playing is matched by Brent Reynolds’s keyboard soundscapes with the anchoring rhythm of drummer Joe Baldacci and bass player Steve Montenegro.
Drgn King spent a year on the road in support of their debut album Paragraph Nights, which spawned solid press and radio play. The genre-hopping, psychedelic-influenced disc, which All Music called “…a less bleak if equally as spiritually transcendent version of The Flaming Lips’ Soft Bulletin.” They were also named by Alternative Press as one of their “100 Bands to Watch” for the year. VICE waxed metaphoric: "DRGN KING sounds exactly like what smelly stoned group sex would sound like. It's messy… It's certainly different, but not scary different, awesome different."
For the new album songwriter Dominic Angelella and producer Brent Reynolds wanted to crack open their process and make a record that inhabited a completely different space than their first album. The two had met in a recording studio a few years before and found common ground between Dom’s DIY pedigree (Hop Along) and Brent’s hip-hop track productions (The Roots, Mac Miller). Sessions were booked in between tours, and new material was worked out across the country. Venues such as Ohio college house parties, in the suburban punk-sprawl of Northern Illinois, in windowless after-hours Carolina bars, and at east-coast festivals such as WXPN’s XPONENTIAL Festival and the Firefly Festival in Dover, DE were home to the new recordings. Reynolds deconstructed sounds were fed back to the rest of the band who perfected the songs as the tour rolled on. Angelella and Brent then re-worked the new material at Kawari Sound, a studio built in a century-old carriage house in rural Pennsylvania.
The album title is also the same name as an ill-fated Women’s Football team that folded before they could play their first game. Baltimore Crush is a feverish ten-song meditation on memory, nostalgia and the dangers of being stuck in the past. The genre-mixing is still present: the lead single “Undertow” flirts with picked bass lines and surf-pop guitar/tambourine, while tracks like “Alchemist’s Lament” and “Solo Harp” bring to mind the stoned-soul prog of Shuggie Otis and Todd Rundgren. The album’s centerpiece is arguably “St. Tom’s,” a piece Angelella wrote about going to see bands in suburban Maryland churches. Amongst the upbeat, dance-y backdrop, he sings “cut a hole in the grass to the past, and we made our way down the path to the woods where all the boys stood dumb and frightening. I once was afraid but I’m seeing better days. The future’s so exciting. It’s so much more exciting than today.” All the members of Drgn King are incredibly excited about Baltimore Crush, (out 10/28 on Bar/None Records) and are ready to gas up their van for parts unknown as soon as they get those breaks fixed.
You don’t just get there straight out of the blue; those haunting humming synthesizers at the beginning of “Paragraph Nights,” the melancholy piano chord changes, the emotional pull the song has on your psyche. It’s a process, you know? It comes from years of growth, experimentation, revision, looking at the scene from another angle, considering the possibilities. “Take a picture, make it last, make it different,” sings Dominic Angelella. And that’s very much the road Drgn KING has taken.
Drgn KING debuted in a well-received warehouse show that fall. Angelella and Reynolds deemed the experiment a success, and kept it moving. Various musical collaborators were brought in, shows got played and new songs were written. Then they retreated into the studio, recorded, refined and recorded some more. Paragraph Nights comes after two years of nose-to-the-grindstone work, and its song are bursting with life, excitement, self-discovery, possibility. Listen to the pensive, introspective electronic pop of “Warriors.” It’s a nod to the community of artists and musicians in Philadelphia, and ruminates on crafting an identity through art: “People tell me I got no purpose,” Angelella sings. “They're not wrong but it's allright.”
Skip around and you’ll find a variety of tones and moods. The fierce industrial juggernaut “Barbarians” rushes at you with a surreal account of nightlife as a rite of passage, as well as a possibly damaging pursuit that just might fray one’s sanity. With haunting half-whispered, half-howled vocals and hammering drumbeats, DRGN KING pushes you to the edge, then carries you back. Earlier, the power pop riffage of “Holy Ghost” laughs and makes an anthemic march out of people projecting an identity onto Angelella – telling him he looks like the Christian Jesus.
With a massive beat and blissful refrain, “Altamont Sunrise” is a soaring number to carry you on your way – to other cities, to other countries, worlds apart from where we are today. A snapping snare drum and juggling bass line are your guides, while Angelella sings loudly and joyously with everyone in the room about taking the lessons learned and making something bigger and brighter on top of the ruins.
It's not a piece of music that DRGN KING could have written individually, or four years ago. Nor is Paragraph Nights a record that could have existed then. It’s an album about the journey, one that reflects as well as embraces it, channeling the trial-and-error process of music-making – and life in general – into something new.