Dope Machines Review

artist: The Airborne Toxic Event date: 03/03/2015 category: compact discs
The Airborne Toxic Event: Dope Machines
Released: Feb 24, 2015
Genre: Indie Electronic
Label: Epic
Number Of Tracks: 10
Never traveling in the exact same direction from album to album, "Dope Machines" has The Airborne Toxic Event taking a sharp turn into indie electronica.
 Sound: 7
 Lyrics: 4
 Overall Impression: 7
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overall: 6
Dope Machines Featured review by: UG Team, on march 03, 2015
3 of 3 people found this review helpful

Sound: Transitioning from literary writing to songwriting, Mikel Jollett founded The Airborne Toxic Event in the midst of personal tragedies, from post-breakup sadness to the pre-grief of terminally-ill family members - a hefty harvest for source material, if you look at the glass half-full. After culling a group of friends for a full outfit, it wasn't long until TATE were making waves in the Los Angeles music scene as the next unsigned band worth paying attention to. This hype would lead to the band signing with Majordomo Records to release their debut self-titled album. Though it wasn't hard to identify the amalgam of inspirations behind the band's sound - some Interpol-style tremolo here, some Strokes-evoking rhythms there, a hint of Decemberists folksiness, etc. - the band's debut effort was nonetheless admirable for a debut effort.  

But perhaps in response to those that were spitefully likening TATE as "the Stone Temple Pilots of 21st-century indie rock," the band didn't stick in the exact same sonic direction as they continued. Their follow-up album, "All at Once," took a step further into folk territory with more acoustic guitar and viola components, as well as bringing forth more synth elements (think if Arcade Fire collaborated with later-era Minus The Bear), though as this may have attempted to throw off those decrying them of derivativeness, it also threw off some of those that praised the band's debut sound. This then led to TATE's third album, "Such Hot Blood," which brought back more of that Interpol-influenced sound, as well as showing more appreciation for low-gear songs, and some brass cameos in the instrumentation.

As usual, Jollett would continue to tinker with the band's sound afterwards, but the result this time around is the most extreme change in sound of TATE's entire catalog. "Dope Machines" has TATE trying their hand at indie electronica, where the expected instrumentation of the band is, by and large, back-seated to the prominent lineup of synthesizers. Lead guitarist Steven Chen still inserts his melodies alongside the cavalcade of keyboards in most songs, but drummer Daren Taylor and bassist Adrian Rodriguez are almost entirely relieved from instrumental duty, and Anna Bulbrook's viola never leaves its case.

The absence of these instruments on "Dope Machines" doesn't leave the band's sound hollowed out, though. Employing proper layering and nuanced progression, TATE capitalize on the spanning potentials of synthetic sound - whether it be the gritty analog bassline balanced with dreamy synth leads in "Wrong," the throbbing acid synth rhythm that drives the smooth synth-pop cut "One Time Thing," the chop-happy "Time to Be a Man," or the shoegaze-inspired "Something You Lost."

However, TATE's previous style isn't totally cast aside. The title track starts off with a gruff guitar riff - the most rock-oriented moment of the album - though it soon hands the baton back over to the phaser-heavy synths and arpeggiators, making that first moment seem more like a token of service to listeners expecting indie rock than anything else. "California" and "Chains" also attempt to thread the needle between TATE's acoustic style and their new synth-heavy style, but the song that pulls it off the best is "Hell and Back," where Jollett's strumming swims above the synths rather than sinking below them, and the addition of tambourines, shakers, and sing-a-long vocals help keep the folk aspect of the song alive and thriving. // 7

Lyrics: The music side of things may be exponentially different, but the lyrical side of "Dope Machines" is exactly what one would expect from Jollett; the constant element of TATE which, at this point, seems to hurt more than it helps. Jollett's still writing his anecdote-fueled adult-contemporary emo lyrics (you know, for the more mature listener that wouldn't be caught dead listening to Chiodos), portraying whatever agonizing relationship scenarios he can muster up - from the one-night affair/make-up sex of "Wrong" that parlays into the "why did I go back to you" sentiment of "One Time Thing," to the facetious game of conversational chess between Jollett and a wily paramour in "Dope Machines," the fatal attraction realization in "Hell and Back," and the fetal-positioned "I still can't get over you" struggle in "Chains."

Even though Jollett is indiscriminately drilling for the same subject matter that one would expect to be dry by now, he still tries to show some growth as a lyricist. "Time to Be a Man" is his attempt for the most positive song on the album - essentially evoking the spirit of "when the going gets tough, the tough get going" - but his common downer themes of sleepless nights and loneliness are still riddled throughout. He flexes his literary muscles by dealing syllabic symmetry by the bulk in the verses of "My Childish Bride," though in some cases he gets stuck and needs to repeat lines to fill the beats ("because the words are just writing, I could listen all night/I could whisper, I could bite, I could write, I could write"). And he includes some metatexture in "California" with the prophesizing line "someday they're gonna forget about us/and we'll wonder if we were ever good enough," but it's nothing more than adding cliché to an already clichéd song about the vapid woes of living in Los Angeles and, yes, another failed relationship - but with the record industry at large being over two centuries old, anyone that still opts to write a song about California is more or less setting themselves for a fall. // 4

Overall Impression: Within itself, "Dope Machines" bears decent variance from front to back, and in the band's discography, it excels as a brand new color rather than being another shade of the same color as before. But though the different sound that "Dope Machines" wields so definitively is bound to rub some of their indie rock fans the wrong way, it's in no way the kind of album that listeners will wish never existed. The new style that TATE attempts here wasn't just out of aimless sonic wanderlust, but a meticulous change in their compositional mettle, of which they succeed at transitioning to - but as much as TATE enjoy gallivanting in the studio, who knows how long they'll stick around in this style. // 7

- Sam Mendez (c) 2015

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