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Mass hysteria

The post-punk darkness of the Dancing Plague of 1518

Conor Knowles accesses the sounds of early goth, post-punk and darkwave. Photo credit: Facebook

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Over the past few months, for various environmental reasons, I've found myself going down Internet rabbit holes researching stories of large groups of people losing their ever-loving minds. Instances of mass hysteria, or something more subtle, like a legitimate brain disease or poisoning coursing its way through a populace and fundamentally changing its makeup. Some people, for instance, attribute the Salem witch trials to ergot-poisoning, which can inspire mania and psychosis in those it affects. There are other bits of mass hysteria that go unexplained, though, going as far back as the Middle Ages. Sometimes, it seems, there comes a time when a bunch of people find themselves all simultaneously losing hold of their faculties, sometimes to fatal ends.

Ergot is also theorized to be the cause of what came to be known as the Dancing Plague of 1518, although no one really knows for sure what inspired people to dance, non-stop, to exhaustion, and some to death. What began with one Mrs. Troffea spontaneously dancing in the middle of a street soon ballooned to upwards of 400 people over the course of a month, dancing night and day. Physicians, at the time, attributed the strange occurrence to "hot blood," and encouraged those afflicted to continue dancing day and night, in the hopes they'd tire themselves out.

Medicine wasn't exactly firing on all cylinders in the 16th century.

Regardless of cause, it seems to me like there are just certain times when mob mentality mixes with stress, paranoia and cultural strife, resulting in groups of people simultaneously leaving the realms of rational thought and behaving in ways that mix poorly with polite society. It's fitting, then, that Spokane post-punk project the Dancing Plague of 1518 would find its namesake in a phenomenon when dancing became a menace. The Dancing Plague of 1518 is the work of Conor Knowles, and it sources its greatest strengths from the interplay between infectious beats and foreboding vocals and muscular synths.

Knowles' music is fitted with an exoskeleton of darkness that shields any and all light from entering. Oddly, though, this sheath of industrial electronics doesn't impart a chilly vibe, rather an uncomfortably humid one. The Dancing Plague of 1518's recent EP, Habitual, opens with "Cataracts," which immediately places you in the early ‘80s goth scene. Its persistent buzz, coupled with Knowles' baritone croon, instantly conjures images of a strobe-lit underground club, packed wall-to-wall with party drug-influenced revelers.

"No Drive," the second track on Habitual, shares the style of repetition and looming sense of danger that was concretized by Suicide in the late ‘70s. That drum machine is unforgiving, jangling your nerves as you feel that, at any moment, the other shoe could drop and send you spiraling into hazardous territory; it's like an auditory version of that notorious scene in Mulholland Dr. behind the diner, all mounting tension before the nightmare reveals itself in one swift movement. At Knowles' most melodic, we get "Hesitation," with its deceptively sweet chord progression that recalls a slightly warped Echo and the Bunnymen.

Even without the threat of hypnotism and fatal exhaustion, people tend to fear dancing. Letting your body move and react to outside sources can be seen as giving over too much control, for some people, and that's not even taking into account the potential for public embarrassment. The Dancing Plague of 1518 evokes this anxiety with its very name, and coaxes you into this fear by virtue of its compellingly constructed locomotion. Knowles successfully taps into the sounds of burgeoning goth, post-punk and darkwave, but his greatest asset is throwing the dare out there to get you on the dance floor and elect to lose control.

The Dancing Plague of 1518, w/ the Variety Hour, Outercourse, Season of Strangers, 8 p.m., Saturday, April 15, $5, Bob's Java Jive, 2102 South Tacoma Way, Tacoma, 253.475.9843

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