Last fall when The Airborne Toxic Event released “Wrong,” the first single from the upcoming album Dope Machines, it proved that Mikel Jollett wasn’t kidding around when he promised that the band would be exploring a very different sound on the next LP. His advance warnings did little to prevent some major eyebrow-raising on the part of many listeners, however, including but not limited to a number of Facebook fans who’ve taken to
obnoxiously loudly registering their objection to the new direction every time the band posts anything pertaining to the release.
Not that the group is likely losing any sleep over it. If anything, it’s a case of mission accomplished. As Mikel said back in the spring, “If people aren’t mad about this next record, I’ll feel like I failed.”
The hubbub surrounding the new sound has obscured something else Mikel pointed out: namely, that this doesn’t represent a 180-degree shift. Rather, the musical terrain explored in Dope Machines has roots that can be traced in Airborne’s previous work.
I think our core fans that are really familiar with the breadth of things that we’ve done won’t be terribly surprised. They’ll be like, “Oh yeah, it’s just a little bit more on this front, and a little bit more on this front.” But, I think, to have a whole record that really goes there.
Which leads us to ponder: which TATE songs of the past can we look to for clues to the future? Some are more obvious than others, but here are five songs from The Airborne Toxic Event that may foreshadow where they are headed with Dope Machines.
5. Welcome to Your Wedding Day
Before morphing into the hardest rocking song on any of The Airborne Toxic Event’s first three studio albums, “Welcome to Your Wedding Day” opens with 30-seconds of bleeps, bloops, fuzzy guitars and synths, the likes of which were heretofore unheard on any TATE recording to date. Is it a coincidence that the band chose to open many of the shows on their fall 2014 tour with an extended version of this intro? Perhaps it was a subtle reminder that the new sounds being experimented with these days aren’t entirely new after all.
Given its status as the pinnacle of Airborne’s trademark orchestral rock, “Innocence” would seem on its face to be diametrically opposed to the electronica of Dope Machines. But listen carefully to the version found on TATE’s debut album. It opens with a synthesized hum that recurs throughout the near-seven-minute masterpiece. Beginning at about the 5:14 mark, the steady buzz reappears and maintains a consistent presence through the final 90-seconds of the song, laying an electronic foundation for the exquisite instrumentation played over top of it.
3. Hell and Back
In the fall of 2013, The Airborne Toxic Event threw a self-described curve ball in the form of “Hell and Back,” a song featured on the Dallas Buyers Club soundtrack that became an unexpected hit single for the band – bringing them arguably their greatest radio success outside of “Sometime Around Midnight.”
Though it wasn’t necessarily a radical departure from that which preceded it (the stomping, sing-along chorus is reminiscent of “Changing,” to cite one connection), there were certainly elements that made us sit up and take notice – a trip-hop beat on an electric kit from Daren Taylor, an arresting synth solo from Anna Bulbrook – bringing a new flare to a familiar sound. It hinted at more to come, and its success may have emboldened the band to really go for it this time around.
2. You’re So American
In the spring of 2012, Mikel became infatuated (as did many other television viewers) with the new HBO program Girls. He took to Huffington Post to explain why he was drawn to the show, and to introduce a song that was inspired by it.
So I wrote this song after watching a 6-episode marathon of the show. It’s not an homage and it’s not a theme song or something. It’s just how I felt after spending time with those characters. Which is all that means. Maybe that makes it more subjective but I guess that’s the point.
The song, “You’re So American,” is a solo effort by Mikel featuring a screechy riff, distorted vocals and electric drums. Very un-TATE-like – up until now, that is.
1. Numb (Demo)
A couple years ago, Mikel released a demo version of the All At Once hit “Numb” through Soundcloud, stating that he actually preferred this recording to the one that ended up on the album. He reiterated his opinion last fall, saying, “I still prefer the demo of this song to the recording. Dave (Sardy) and I had a series of spirited debates about this song which ended with a compromise and a switchblade being pulled (as a joke, I think).”
The demo version is more fit for a dance club than a rock stage, with its electronic drum beat, spacey, layered vocals, muted guitars and synth flourishes. From what we know about Dope Machines, we suspect that this take on “Numb” would be right at home on it.
Glen is the founder and editor of This Is Nowhere. He’s grateful for an understanding wife and kids who indulge his silly compulsion to chase a band all over the Pacific Northwest (and occasionally beyond) every time the opportunity arises.