When Dorsal Fins make a record like Digital Zodiac, there’s a point where they surpass harmony, and it’s something closer to alchemy. The process of taking sounds and cultivating them, refining them until they become something worth more than before, seems like a process that involves speculation, calculation and hypothesis. For Dorsal Fins, it’s chemical — the songs on Digital Zodiac, the band’s second full length LP, are the product of action and reaction.
Formed in 2014, Dorsal Fins is helmed by Liam McGorry, whose face and trumpet timbre will be recognisable to fans of Melbourne collectives Eagle & The Worm and Saskwatch. Dorsal Fins was born when McGorry began sharing demos with vocalists and songwriters Ella Thompson and Jarrad Brown. This trio, who after almost a decade each of music-making are mainstays of Melbourne stages, are Dorsal Fins’ pillars: demos and ideas sent back and forth between them are the genesis of each song, as McGorry’s original songwriting ideas build and morph. Complete only after input from the six other musicians that currently comprise Dorsal Fins, the songs on Digital Zodiac feel born of the kind of musical collaboration that can only be described as joyous: at turns frenetic, laconic, overblown and understated.
For a band that is adored for its eclecticism, finding a characteristic that unites each song from Digital Zodiac might seem difficult, but there is no doubt that what defines this record is its sense of wholeness. To say it sounds like a well-maintained machine denies the album of its visceral, human flourishes, but the moving parts within Digital Zodiac function so harmoniously that there’s something stunning about their mechanics — it truly sounds like nine moving as one.
The vocals provide each song’s summit. Mainly provided by Thompson and Brown, the vocal lines feel innate — the melodies are mapped, inevitable, propelled by forward-motion. “Singing in harmony is such a thrill,” says Thompson. “It doesn’t feel like you’re singing backing vocals — you’re singing as one.” While Brown and Thompson’s voices provide a huge range of texture and nuance, alongside a roster of featured vocalists, it’s almost as though Dorsal Fins itself has a voice: one that oscillates depending on narrative and timbre. Alongside Thompson and Brown, featured vocalists Tim Nelson (Cub Sport), Tim Karmouche (Crepes, Hollow Everdaze) and Nick Vorrath (Custom Kings, Joe Neptune) lend their voices to songs across the album, as the band’s voice fluctuates and morphs, sometimes earnestly singular and sometimes in dialogue — literally, when the interlude from lead single “Sedated” places Thompson and Brown on opposite ends of a phone line.
Digital Zodiac is a decidedly more laid-back affair than its predecessor, 2015’s Mind Renovation. When asked how he manages to keep cohesion on a record so full of musical ideas, McGorry warns, “It’s not graceful. Throw it at the wall and see what sticks.” He says it’s a testament to the record’s voices that the album maintains a through-line, but one of Digital Zodiac’s strengths is its slow unravel: the album’s first half is buoyant and exuberant, elevated by the amorous “High Low” and the ironically raucous “Sedated”. A reflective outro on “Precious Hands” signals a shift, and the melancholy of “Blind” is rounded out by “Man Versus Woman”, a kind of twisted lullaby.
Brown says he valued the opportunity to “curate” Digital Zodiac in a way that wasn’t possible on Mind Renovation. On their first album, Brown saw the group as “a new band, new collective, barely even a band”. With a year of touring under their belts, the band have grown accustomed to each other, and McGorry agrees, “we’ve established the unit that is Dorsal Fins”. The finesse with which nine parts make a whole is the Dorsal Fins secret weapon: not just harmony, not collaboration, but pure chemistry.