The fourth release from indie act Universal Dice is, unquestionably, their most ambitious effort yet. birth, love, hate, death harkens back to an increasingly distant time in our popular music history when composers, straining against the confines of the three minute single, aimed to marry one of our most democratic and accessible of all art forms with a higher artistry and aesthetic sensibility. Gerry Dantone’s songwriting on this self-labeled “rock opera” doesn’t follow a linear storyline to realize its conceptual conceits, but the cumulative effect of the album’s sixteen songs makes a definite impression on listeners and has an inevitable progression of character development and interaction common to the best releases of this type. The album shows a level of cohesion and coherence extending far past the usual purview of the form and it makes for an invigorating, engaging listen from the first.
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After a nice, understated rave-up, “Welcome to the World” settles into a steady, uncluttered rock groove with staccato guitar lines and Dantone’s Jakob Dylan-esque dramatic rasp coloring the lyrics. There’s some nice harmony vocals coming in at key points and it gets birth, love, hate, death off to an appropriately energetic start without getting too carried away with itself. The gorgeous dream-like sway of “I Wish I Could Tell You This” carries a nicely modulated Dantone vocal along with it and tasteful lead guitar exquisitely chiming in. The lyrics are written with the same inner eye and ear for detail and economy – Dantone’s style as both a musician and lyricist is one never wasting a word or note. “The Prophet” is one of birth, love, hate, death’s punchiest numbers thanks to memorable drumming and an emphatic rush forward the song makes following another brief rave-up intro. Dantone’s songwriting obeys all the fundamentals and draws on long-standing traditions, but he clearly has a skill for pouring old wine into new bottles.
There’s a lot of vocal harmonies critical to the success of “My Hands Are Tied”, but it never takes the track far from its rock roots as Dantone and his partners in this project pump out another superb guitar-bass-drum driven number. The album’s longest track “Take Me Home” starts off dramatically, but never so much so that it overwhelms listeners. Instead, there’s the same tastefulness marking its build that defines the album’s remaining material. It evolves at a nice pace and ends up making a tremendous impact justifying every second of its running time. It isn’t the first song on birth, love, hate. Death to feature piano playing, but the ivories bring an appealing melodic lift to the track “Danielle” that effectively alternates with a much rockier sound. Another long-ish track on the album, “I Know What I’m Doin’”, highlights Dantone’s talent for convincingly writing in character and has an ideal instrumental accompaniment. There’s a slight fatalistic chill to this tune that you’ll feel in every bone. The steady pulse of birth, love, hate, death’s “Man Enough” sets things up nicely for an equally assertive performance that Dantone really excels with. The finale “Forever” hasa Beatle-ish flair and couples a plaintive piano melody with some warm, well-recorded acoustic guitar and Dantone turns in one of his most affecting vocals. Universal Dice’s fourth release is definitely their best yet and shows Dantone’s songwriting creativity has no appreciable limit.