The death of the guitar has been greatly exaggerated.
As the clock struck midnight in the Eastern time zone late Sunday night, VH1’s exclusive premiere of “Chains,” the closing track from The Airborne Toxic Event’s new album Dope Machines, went live.
The song, which clocks in at 4:53, is our second taste of the much anticipated and hotly debated new sound promised by the band. And while there’s no doubt that “Chains” is a significant step away from anything heard on the previous three albums, there are still plenty of classic TATE elements here to keep longtime fans happy.
Not ready to wave goodbye to the guitar just yet? Don’t fret; it’s still here. Worried that Anna Bulbrook’s viola will be relegated to the shelf? It too makes an appearance. Concerned about the use of electronic drums? Daren Taylor’s got you covered. Drawn to Mikel Jollett’s impassioned baritone and his structure-defying, incisive storytelling? Look no further.
Along the way, we even revisit familiar Airborne thematic tropes: midnight, stumbling through the streets after the bars close, graves on a hillside, a desire to break free and break away from the past – or if not, then at least to hide from it. And above all, a desperate desire to connect with somebody who can relate.
There are other snatches of familiarity. At various times I caught myself thinking, “Hey, that sounds a bit like ‘Haile,'” or that the urgency of the strings reminds me of “Safe,” or even that the group vocals towards the end conjure “The Winning Side,” though the two songs could hardly be more different in most every other respect.
Yet those recognizable elements find fresh life here, given an entirely new context. Synths, yes, but not just that. Though present, they hardly overwhelm. There is a good deal of vocal layering going on: at times Mikel’s voice is doubled or tripled up; at other times he blends seamlessly with his bandmates. An undeniable pop sheen coats the whole thing, but in a tasteful, understated way that enhances rather than detracts from the players’ natural musicianship.
What The Airborne Toxic Event really does well here is keep the listener guessing. This is no made for radio special. Tonally and temporally, the song makes a number of unexpected shifts through its five-minute journey. Even after multiple close listens, I find myself surprised by the varied directions it chooses to take at points. There’s a sure destination, but it gets there via the scenic route, and as such shares more in common with “Innocence” than fellow album-closers “The Graveyard Near the House” and “Elizabeth.”
Ultimately, “Chains” gives the impression of a band that is comfortable in its own skin: beholden neither to the expectations created by its own history, nor to the fickle demands of pop radio programming. Which, one senses, is exactly what they set out to do.
“Chains” is available as an automatic download when you pre-order Dope Machines from iTunes starting Jan. 20.
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.