When you release an album as stellar as Dens' 2020 post-rock masterpiece Taming Tongues -- this writer's #1 album of last year -- it may seem like an unwise task to revisit or reimagine; why tinker with near-perfection? The album, pulsing with incredible intensity and heavy dynamics, and lyrical concept lamenting the destructive ways in which we communicate (or fail to), was released in early March of last year, only a week before the COVID pandemic began to seriously upend our daily life. As the chaos of 2020 continued to unfold, those lyrics proved more and more essential as all aspects of society -- the Christian church certainly no exception -- saw continuing deterioration of positive communication in favor of hostility and foolishness, and the album's message of "Even foolish men are wise when they learn to keep quiet" seemed prescient.
With all opportunity to tour in support of Taming Tongues lost to the pandemic, Dens was instead inspired by the heightened urgency of the album's theme to return to it -- though not just lazily apply a standard acoustic cover formula to the entire original album, but instead to "write it again," isolating in a tranquil West Virginia cabin with a variety of acoustic instruments and a dedication to their message of godly discernment in communication to a world in desperate need of learning to keep quiet. Remarkably, the intensity and noisy raw urgency of Taming Tongues transitions perfectly into an equally powerful album of gracious beauty and thoughtful emotion, and this acoustic rendition of one of last year's best is itself a brilliant album that might be its companion's equal.
The truly impressive feat of Tamed Tongues is that it's not just one sonic concept applied to an entire set of songs. Instead, each original song has been broken down and rebuilt organically from the ground up, and the end result is an exceptionally diverse and appealing reimagining. The unique instrumentation includes lap steel on "Even," harmonica on the toe-tapping bluegrass flavor of "Men," and standout "They" which frames its driving urgency with banjo and mandolin. Some songs are reimagined more than others; "Were" takes the moody and contemplative "Are," shifts it to a smooth AC ballad, and rewrites it lyrically to past-tense, with the notable exception that "Love's still the greatest of all of these." The noisy and chaotic "To" becomes a decisive 6/8 march with much more prominence to the lyrics of how man's tongue forks between "blessing my Father but cursing my brother." Perhaps the only song here that fails to really impress me is "Learned," which features a fuzzy overgained piano and echo-heavy vocal processing that feels a bit misplaced in the overall context of the album's sound.
There has never been any element of Dens that was weak, but perhaps less appreciated amidst the noise are the vocals of frontman Shaun Hypes. That is certainly no longer the case, as the acoustic instruments allow full showcase of Hypes and his vocal power. The solo acoustic "When," and especially the beautiful solo piano-driven "Keep," feature the vocals, and as a result the powerful lyrics, front and center. The album's most stunning moment though is the closing, "Quiet," nothing less than an incredible moment of worship, with a newly written final verse where Hypes proclaims desperately "When You speak, Your grace is unleashed / nations will bow down / When You speak, darkness fractures / death will be silent" and then fades with the tender cry, "Speak quietly to me, I am listening." It is perhaps the most powerful moment on an album that is full of them.
In just a few short years, Dens has established themselves as one of the most interesting, thoughtful, and gifted rock bands around, and their ability to cover so much diverse ground on an "unplugged" album is nothing short of phenomenal. Not one song has the exact same feel as others; each stakes out its own unique acoustic ground. And unlike certain other unplugged re-imaginings that have recently been released, the appeal of this album should extend far beyond the band's existing fanbase; Tamed Tongues succeeds not only as a reference to its predecessor, but on its own as a completely separate and carefully thought-out work. If you thought Taming Tongues was as incredible as I and many others did, you're still sure to appreciate the depth and contrasting beauty of this album; but if you have never heard of Dens before, this is still a fantastic way to first experience the creative strength of their songwriting and Shaun Hypes' exceptional vocals. Though there is much more of 2021 to come, I feel quite confident that for the second year in a row, there will be a spot for Dens very high on the list of the year's best albums.- Review date: 5/2/21, written by Evan Dickens of Jesusfreakhideout.com
Record Label: Facedown Records
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