When Mike Sniper began his Blank Dogs project—back when MySpace was king, things like Facebook and Twitter were still in their infancy, and most of the population didn’t spend every minute sharing the boring minutiae of their every waking moment with everyone else online—it still seemed possible to maintain a degree of anonymity. As such, the former bassist for the raucous DC Snipers was able to re-imagine himself as a post-punk band, creating music shrouded in a lo-fi mist equally thick as the mystery surrounding its creation. Blank Dogs, as the name denotes, seemed to exist somewhere on the world’s peripheries. Remember that cliff over which Robert Smith crooned in the “Just Like Heaven” video? It was from somewhere over that edge that this music was made, rising to the surface on cassettes, singles and various digital missives.
Of course, if it was only the enigmatic nature of the project that was the allure, no one would have cared for long. Instead, Sniper created cuts that even when rooted in rudimentary sounds showed their lineage in gothic atmospherics and post-punk construction. Blending 17 Seconds minimalism with Hookian bass melodies, he wore his sonic heart on his sleeve, even when burying his voice in watery layers of effects that still seemed, however unintentionally, to express a desire to obscure his identity.
With the notoriety, Sniper’s identity was, of course, eventually revealed, while at the same time, he found new levels of fidelity to his liking. Last year’s Land and Fixed was his most startling record to date, primarily for its sheer conventionalism. As such, the timing probably couldn’t be better for Collected By Itself, which pulls together 27 tracks from those many virgin recordings.
Organized in no discernible manner (neither chronologically nor by release, at least), the 27 tracks are a fitting encapsulation of from whence the Blank Dogs came. The set begins with “Leaving the Light On,” from the Diana (The Herald) EP (released in 2008 by Sacred Bones), which marries a haunting guitar line to gurgling multi-tracked choruses. Revealing the “band” at its most anemic, the song sounds particularly primitive, even within this admittedly atavistic context. “Before the Hours,” on the other hand, which was released on The Fields EP the same year, sounds opulent by comparison, multiple synths swirling around a jagged guitar line, bass chiming and a stuttering electronic beat. Those songs from the Seconds EP, released more recently in 2009 on Sniper’s own Captured Tracks label, are particularly evocative. “Calling Over,” which is one of the few tracks to feature real drums, sounds more like the product of an actual band rather than something piece-mealed together. Still, you would be hard-pressed to necessarily track the Blank Dogs’ progression linearly. Instead, one gets the sense that Sniper might have been just throwing it all out into aether and seeing what worked.
Looking back even just two short years, the wonderment that greeted these releases seems a little quaint. But then part of the Blank Dogs’ charm was the manner in which the music seemed to appear out of nowhere. Sniper has subsequently traded in that whimsy for legitimacy, which is perfectly understandable. But as Collected By Itself reveals, obscurity can have its advantages too.