I saw Dogleg live for the first time roughly a year ago. There, in a dimly lit corner of Mac’s Bar, I accepted a high-stakes challenge. The rules were simple: win a round of Super Smash Bros: Melee against bassist Chase Macinski to receive any item from their merch table 100% free of charge. Five KO’s and less than 45 seconds later, I sat in embarrassing defeat, handing a 20 to frontman Alex Stodsiadis and drummer Parker Grissom to purchase a shirt out of respect. Now, after a long wait, the Detroit band has finally released their debut full-length record, which is of course titled Melee.
While it’s easy to see this name as an allusion to the Nintendo game Dogleg lives and breathes, it implies much more beneath the surface. The title reflects the messy conflicts against the world and against yourself that come with being a young adult, while offering solidarity to anyone fighting a personal battle with mental health. Melee’s angst and resilience are best summed up by that shirt I bought from Dogleg all those months ago: despite a bloodstain that won’t quite seem to come out, I wear that shirt whenever I need a reminder that no one is alone in their battles.
With a project so jam-packed with ideas and emotions, it felt necessary to give every song a chance in the spotlight. Therefore, the following is a track-by-track review of one of the Michigan music scene’s best albums this year.
From the first few seconds of the album, Dogleg makes it clear they aren’t here to mess around. Several brief guitar chords set the tone before the whole band enters with a beatdown that hits like an oncoming train. Ten seconds in, and the band has already created an adrenaline spike like no other. This is the moment you activate “star power” after a hot streak on Guitar Hero. This is Scott Pilgrim hitting a foot pedal and summoning a rock’n’roll yeti to fight his battles. “Kawasaki Backflip” may be the shortest song on the album, but it’s one of the most action-packed, and the perfect introduction to the band for first time listeners. After only two minutes, the song reaches its explosive ending. As Stoitsiadis strains his lungs screaming the hook “Will you be the fire or the wind,” he sounds like both a raging inferno and an unstoppable hurricane.
The second spot on this record’s tracklist picks up right where the previous song left off, offering no time to breathe before rollicking drums drag you back to your feet. While it is the only song on Melee without a repeated hook or chorus, it remains one of the most addictively catchy Dogleg songs to date with countless moments that are sure to worm their way into fans’ heads indefinitely, from the dizzy opening riff to the ensemble shouts of “forever, forever.” Fun as this song may be, it packs an emotional wallop as well with a mid-track crescendo that must be heard to be believed. The band clearly knew they were onto something with this one when they determined its far-from-humble but accurate title.
This track is the closest Dogleg ever comes to a “slow burn,” and even then, it’s less like a “slow burn” and more like a dynamite fuse being lit. Post-hardcore inspired riffs give way to a cutting verse and a euphoric chorus emerging like the brilliant sun after a thunderstorm. The true attention-grabber of “Prom Hell” is its scorched-earth finale.
Stoidsiadis pushes his voice to the breaking point repeating a haunting question that many of us are all too familiar with: “Was I good enough?” Despite this brutally honest self-doubt, or perhaps even because of it, “Prom Hell” is a raw experience leaving no room to deny that the song is far more than just good enough.
As the lead single for “Melee,” this was the first song the world heard from Dogleg in nearly three years, and what a return it was. “Fox” is a perfect demonstration of everything the band does well. The opening “shindeiru” is appropriate – this is the closest punk gets to anime fight music. From the outset the band is in first gear, absolutely demolishing their guitars with a driving riff that only gets more intense as the song proceeds. The Cap’n Jazz influence shines through in a shouted verse section that’s impossible not to sing along to, while the lyrics seem to paint a heart-wrenching picture of a broken home.
Tension and release are the key to this track’s magic, and nowhere is this more evident than the bridge section. “Any moment now I will disintegrate,” Stoisiadis howls with mounting fury, building from a whisper to a roar until his vocal chords truly do feel on the edge of disintegration. One more repeat of the pummeling riff and then the track is over just as quick as it began, daring you to reach for the replay button.
One of the most crucial yet underrated components of Dogleg’s success is Parker Grissom’s virtuosic drumming, which is on full display in this album highlight. Grissom’s unique rhythm carries the track from beginning to end, with a torrent of fills that sounds like a speeding locomotive, always just on the verge of going off the rails yet never quite falling apart. “Headfirst” is more lyrically-sparse than most tracks on Melee, but this makes the words that do break through hit even harder, forcing you to empathize with Stoitsiadis as he pleads “I’m so tired of waiting around to find something I’ve already got.” As the song comes to a blistering finale, the band lets out a spine-chilling refrain of “time will let you down.” However, listeners won’t be let down in the slightest.
Certain songs give you the irresistible urge to break something, and these songs wish they were “Hotlines.” Tracks like this should be illegal to listen to while driving. Anyone who’s seen Dogleg live can attest to their furious, frantic stage presence and this song does the best job conveying this energy on tape, with the band putting vitriol into every note as though they’re punishing their instruments and themselves in equal measure. In the last two decades, this song perhaps comes the closest to evoking At The Drive In’s legendary lose-your-mind stage attitude of the early 2000s.
Meanwhile, the lyrics aim straight for the throat, perfectly capturing the stress and frustration one feels when they waste all day trapped in their head, repeating every memory of every mistake. This torrential barrage of blows never lets up, from the angry buzz of the intro to the violent shouts of the outro. The background vocals of a million voices chant out “no way, no way,” carrying on for several seconds after the band has stopped playing as though “Hotlines” contains far too much anger for one song. But Dogleg won’t let that stop them from trying to release all of the pent-up fury a human being can summon in just three minutes.
The most radio-ready song of the bunch, “Wartortle” sounds like a John Hughes soundtrack from hell. Taking some cues from genre heavyweight Joyce Manor, the band makes this song feel both nostalgic and immediate with the energy to fuel youthful hijinks that would make Ferris Bueller envious. Emo has always toed the line between breakneck punk and timeless indie-rock, and this track shows that diverse wealth of influences better than any other.
Of course it wouldn’t be a Dogleg song without some bloodletting and the song’s triumphant half-time breakdown satisfies this hunger in spades. “You can’t convince the world, or convince me to say no,” the band calls out amid the heated frenzy, with the same stubbornness paradoxically responsible for many of their self-admitted shortcomings yet just as many personal victories throughout the narrative of Melee. The hope and renewed vigor audible in this ending makes a convincing case that “Wartortle” is one such victory.
As the punchy hook of this song kicks in, you’re suddenly struck with a realization that every song on the album could’ve been a single. Dogleg’s consistent catchiness is undeniable and this straightforward banger shows that the band can take alternative rock influences such as The Strokes and Hippo Campus and infuse them with just enough punk attitude to become something wholly their own. “Wrist” even takes a classic move like the final-chorus key change – a tradition that can easily become cheesy or gimmicky – and executes it with such flawless grace and energy that one can’t imagine a more fitting ending. While every song on Melee is filled with cathartic confessions, there’s something different beneath the surface on this track, a deeper darkness and hurt that feels like an exposed wound still open on the hearts of the band. Each consecutive song on the record reveals more and more of the group’s inner demons, but “Wrist” feels almost invasive in it’s vulnerability, as though the listener is piecing together a torn up letter that was never meant to be read.
This track may slow the tempo of the album, but at this point it’s foolish to expect that Dogleg would lose any steam. The title conjures images of a castle preparing for seige, trebuchets and flaming arrows at the ready. But “Cannonball” isn’t the final battle of Dogleg’s story; it’s the climactic speech moments before the battle, rallying the troops and inspiring the heroes. The crescendoing call to “tear down the monument” evokes Aragorn’s speech at the Black Gate, or Braveheart’s iconic declaration of freedom. As gang vocals carry the song to it’s massive finale, it’s clear that Dogleg has amassed not just a fanbase but an army of loyal punks with their hearts on their sleeves.
But of course, the final battle must still be fought, and it’s a doozy. The aptly titled last track “Ender” goes through as many twists and turns as a cinematic war epic, but never denies listeners the closure you’d want in a final song. The biggest draw towards Dogleg’s music is the insanely cathartic nature of every one of their songs, and after a record full of impossible peaks it seems unthinkable for the band to reach a higher and louder level of emotional release. And yet, the passion in “Ender” surprasses every other song on Melee with ease. Dogleg seems to counter the album’s overarching theme – the fear of never being good enough – by throwing everything they have left into “Ender.” Although the words tormenting the band may be “not enough,” they end the album with a glorious sensory-overload that almost dares listeners to say “too much,” constantly shifting gears until the anthemic ending reaches a fever pitch with an army of gang vocals that will leave jaws on the floor. And then, in perhaps the album’s most understatedly shocking moment, everything drops out and we’re left with a gorgeous orchestral outro.
This finale sticks out like a sore thumb in contrast to the thirty minutes of distorted punk aggression preceding it, but the soft string section provides a necessary moment of reflection after the emotional onslaught listeners have just experienced. The album fades out with its only moment of peace which, brief as it is, lets the listener meditate on the knowledge that all things are temporary. Both the good and bad will come to pass when the time is right, and the band’s story doesn’t have to end here.
When you lean back in your chair just a little too far, there is a moment where time seems to freeze. You’re suspended in air, wholly aware of the mistake you’ve just made but powerless to stop the approaching impact with the floor. Dogleg lives in this moment, every nerve on high alert and every synapse of the brain firing off a jolt of panic begging you to do something, anything to stop the inevitable disaster. And yet, when the fall is this fun, it’s impossible not to take the tumble with Melee again and again.
Melee is out now through Triple Crown records, and you can watch our studio session with the band here.