Let’s get one thing straight about death’s dynamic shroud right out of the gate: the self-contained universe overseen by Tech Honors, Keith Rankin, and James Webster started as a joke. Actually, maybe joke isn’t the right word. More like a gentle jab at the vaporwave scene that dazzled the digital underground a decade ago. Especially its obsession with 8- and 16-bit set pieces, snoozy Muzak, and Max Headroom mood boards.
It’s not that the three Dayton natives behind DDS didn’t grow up obsessing over those same video games, popcorn flicks, and surreal aesthetics. But as elder Millennials born in the mid-’80s, they experienced vaporwave’s pop cultural touchpoints first-hand, rather than the way a younger generation thought this era felt, looked, and sounded like. This explains why Webster was immediately struck by the similarities between several emerging artists and the nearly 15-year-old Dreamcast game Shenmue. As he wandered through its open world in the same way he had in the early ‘00s, he noticed that each screen’s soundtrack felt like a series of vaporwave sample banks revealing their roots in real time. One glaring example? The INTERNET CLUB album VANISHING VISION. According to Webster, “The first track on that album is straight-up the pizza shop in Shenmue.”
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Hearing such overt hero worship made him realize, “I can do that.” And so he did; released at the top of 2014, シェンムーONLINE is a punch-drunk Shenmue tribute that doubled as DDD’s accidental debut. “Accidental” because Webster and Honors—longtime friends last heard riding a widescreen rock wave in The Sailing—weren’t treating their latest project as a proper band, but like a playground where they could push the limits of rudimentary synths, software and samplers.
This wasn’t a foreign concept to them; a few years earlier, the duo launched Ghost Diamond as a landing pad for their solo work and wild collaborations not only with each other but also with old friends like Rankin. (Between his own label Orange Milk Records, and his solo work as Giant Claw, Rankin was plenty busy carving his own corner within the Midwest’s growing underground at the time.) Take a quick look at Ghost Diamond’s sprawling discography, and you’ll find the forerunner of DDS’s free-wheeling spirit filed under the name Rebecca Peake. While its strongest material is spread between a multitude of albums and one best-of compilation, the alias was actually a song-a-day challenge that occurred on SoundCloud between April 1, 2011, and March 31, 2012.
After realizing they could “make pretty decent music really fast,” Webster says that they decided to make the next logical jump: a subscription-based mixtape club under the name NUWRLD. “At first, it was just me and Tech. [At first] we were like, ‘Forty minutes of music every two months? Are you kidding me!? That’s child’s play!’ It ended up being pretty hard.” It was also overwhelming for new listeners who were suddenly drowned in a deluge of diametric material credited to either death’s dynamic shroud.wmv (the duo’s mixtape moniker) or simply death’s dynamic shroud (the home of their heady “mainline” LPs). No matter how patient or open-minded you are, it’s a lot to absorb. Or as Rankin—an official DDS member as of 2014—admits, “I feel like some people don’t know how to handle or process something like that. They’ll see a huge discography and just be like, ‘I’m not touching this.’”
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It’s not like DDS was trying to overwhelm people. The goal with NUWRLD was right there in the name: world-building, something Webster—like many ‘90s kids—discovered while standing at a listening station in a record store and pressing play on Kid A. “I remember putting these nasty headphones on,” he says, “and ‘Everything in Its Right Place’ started playing. It was like the fireworks from your first kiss—‘This is it; this is what I’ve always wanted to hear.’ The chords were so weird; there was all this crazy vocal manipulation; the beat was nothing but this gentle electronic pulse the whole time…It was an epic moment. I took off the headphones and was like, ‘I have to get OK Computer to fully understand this.’ I was such a music nerd, I said, ‘I can’t start here.’ Maybe that’s lost in today’s world, but at the time, the canon was so important to me.”
Honors remembers connecting the dots between key discographies by using Amazon of all things. Which makes sense; much of its early business model was built on a budget-friendly RIYL bent, not that far removed from a traditional record store. Clicking on Kid A may have led to Spiritualized and Sparklehorse, for instance. Honors also remembers stumbling upon everything from Godspeed You! Black Emperor to Sigur Rós that way, as he combed Amazon’s virtual aisles trying to make the most of his monthly $60 budget. “In the ‘90s, you just had radio and MTV,” he says. “That’s just what you were given. I wonder how often people are blown away by things now. When you have access to everything, you don’t just have to deal with what’s on the surface; you can just explore whatever you want at will.”
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DDS began to emerge from the internet’s bottomless well with 2015’s I’ll Try Living Like This album, an otherworldly chopped & screwed collab between Webster and Rankin that was co-signed by leading vaporwave label Dream Catalogue. Building on its momentum was 2017’s Heavy Black Heart—the first DDS full-length to feature all three members rather than a rotating cast—and 2021’s Faith in Persona, Rankin’s long overdue introduction to the trio’s mixtape series. A favorite of tastemakers like Needle Drop founder Anthony Fantano, the latter’s twisted pop tracks attracted a noticeable number of new members to DDS’s cult following.
It also revealed one of the group’s secret weapons: Rankin’s love of both lucid jazz and R&B icons like Teddy Riley. “Keith is a great improvisational player,” explains Webster. “He can sit down at a keyboard and do things I never would have thought of doing. I think that really adds a lot to our collaborative albums together. There’s a lot of weird melodies I never would have come up with just sitting around.” Honors, on the other hand, is more deliberate—a meticulous songwriter determined to make your heart sink to the bottom of your chest, a hopeful romantic with hooks to spare. That’s actually one thing that separates DDS’s more recent material from the scene they’ve all but left behind: the trio’s determination to make you feel something deeply human. Or, as Webster said on the Weezer-esque rock song “Children of the Sun” recently, “We want to make you cry.”
“It’s the idea that someone can be feeling content,” explains Webster, “and then hear something and suddenly be moved to tears.”
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“Like I can be just fine,” adds Honors, “hear a Carpenters song, and then just be sobbing. It’s cool that we could make something that does that.”
Webster’s wife knows the feeling: Apparently, she began to cry in another room when Rankin was working on the wobbly power ballad “Light Left the Garden” at the couple’s home. “After I heard that,” says Webster, “I was like, ‘That’s a good one.’” It ended up being one of many seminal moments on Darklife, DDS’s biggest breakthrough yet thanks to its pass-the-mic approach to production and the support of George Clanton and Neggy Gemmy’s influential 100% Electronica imprint. As Clanton puts it, “We agreed to do Darklife purely based on the quality of their previous work. If I remember correctly, we were hyping it up way before it was ready. They took their time with it, and I knew they were going to make something epic that would stand the test of time. My perception of Darklife was that it was a statement—‘This is what DDS is now,’ truly singular artists with their own sound. That universe is a big reason why I feel so connected to them.” To bring everything they’ve done full circle, the group decided to revisit three of their favorite mixtapes for 100% Electronica. Midnight Tangerine, Keys to the Gate, and Transcendence Bot are being given proper makeover—the kind DDS couldn’t justify while continuing to write, record and release one mixtape a month.
Rankin’s Transcendence Bot LP underwent the fewest changes, since its industrial sound was exploding with insistent earworms about the imminent melding of man and machines. Webster’s Keys to the Gate needed to remedy production errors and tighten its groove-locked grip so that the ambient house of “Searching for Mania,” chilling war cries of “Let Them Live,” and nail-bombed-Chemical Brothers nods of “Free Yourself” would hit even harder.
And Midnight Tangerine may be the most surprising listen of the lot, with Honors emerging as a kind of electro-shocked Elliott Smith thanks to soaring choruses and Rankin’s prickly co-production cues. Since Honors is a songwriter first and producer second, it’s reasonable to wonder if DDS ever considered letting him be the singer and let the rest of the group focus on the music. Honors laughs at that suggestion. “In order for that to work on an ego level, we’d have to write two albums like that—one that I wrote, and one that James wrote.”
“If Tech had said we should make Midnight Tangerine the next DDS album,” adds Webster with a smile, “he knew in his heart of hearts that I’d be like, ‘You’re not the lead singer, man.’”
Therein lie the other factors pushing DDS past its vaporwave roots: The power trio’s distinct strengths as songwriters and their inherent competitiveness. In fact, they’re already ready to reunite for the proper follow-up to Darklife. “Making an album out in the mountains in a chalet is the dream,” says Webster. “I’d like to make something completely different than Darklife, with a whole new palette…Maybe even more rock leaning, because that’s kind of the direction everything [with us] is going.” He’s referring there to the fall dates that Webster and Honors just wrapped with George Clanton and Frost Children. (Rankin stayed home in Columbus.) “It’s been a rock show from beginning to end, and the kids love it,” Webster says. “Our time has finally come back around, and I’m ready to rock!”