Anna Bulbrook of The Airborne Toxic Event.
Photo by TATE fan Ryan Macchione.
Ed. Note: This is the third in a six part series in which fans of The Airborne Toxic Event select their Top 5 musical moments of their favorite band member. Previous entries: Mikel’s Top 5 Vocals; Daren Taylor, the Ultimate Beat Keeper. Next week: Noah Harmon, Bassman.
Ask any fan of The Airborne Toxic Event what, on first listen, distinguished TATE from other bands, and almost invariably, it was a violin in a rock song.
Never mind that it’s actually a viola; most of our ears weren’t that finely tuned when we first heard it. But it’s been cited time and time again as fans have shared their stories here on This Is Nowhere: there’s just something about that instrument, seemingly out of place but ultimately oh so at home amongst the electric guitars, the drums and the keyboards that one normally expects to find in a sweaty rock ‘n’ roll club.
So too its classy, diminutive player may seem at first glance an odd fit, the lone female on stage with four rowdy dudes, some of them heavily tattooed and prone to hanging with bikers in their downtime. And yet, there’s something about the chemistry that just works.
It’s become the band’s hallmark: punk rock that veers towards the orchestral, so much so that many of their most heralded performances have come with the backing of a string quartet, if not an entire symphony. And yet even then, Anna Bulbrook and her viola never fail to command attention.
So in tribute to our favorite classically-trained rock star, here are 5 exceptional Anna moments.
5. This Losing
I always felt that, had it been included on the first album, “This Losing” could have taken its place alongside fan favorites like “Wishing Well” and “Does This Mean You’re Moving On?” as one of Airborne’s great classics. As it is, we have to content ourselves with the occasional but very welcome live performance (I myself have yet to see it live).
The Airborne Toxic Event are masters of tempo. Yeah, sometimes they assault the ears for 3-and-a-half minutes, never letting up (see: “Papillon”); and sure, they’ve produced some truly heart-wrenching ballads (see: “Duet”). But where they really shine, at least for me, is when they take us on a musical journey through varied terrain, full of peaks and valleys, highs and lows. “This Losing” is just such a song, and it’s Anna and her viola that propel it.
Here, we see Anna at her most tender, and at her most frenetic. We see her on her knees, lost in the melody, and we see her seeming to tower over us, viola pointed heavenward like an arrow. And, in lieu of the guitar solo that a lesser band would place in the bridge, we see an unshaven bassist playing his guitar with a bow, huddled with a girl and her viola: a symphony hidden in a rock song.
4. Half of Something Else (Going the Distance Soundtrack)
More than any other instrument in the band’s arsenal (save perhaps for Mikel’s voice), Anna’s viola establishes mood. Pay attention, and it will tell you whether it’s time to celebrate or time to mourn; time to embrace hope or time to get lost in despair.
“Half of Something Else” was voted the fans’ favorite bombastic video, and it’s become an energetic live staple. But some fans remain tragically unaware of the exquisite acoustic version of the song found on the Going the Distance soundtrack. Stripped of layers of sound, Mikel’s voice cracking, the track bleeds brokenness. And it’s Anna who sets the plaintive tone from the outset, her melancholy viola marking out the parameters within which the song will run its course. When she takes center stage at the 2:11 mark, you can practically hear her instrument weeping.
Sept. 20, 2012. I’m in the 4th row at Red Rocks, fulfilling a lifelong dream, seeing my favorite band at my bucket list venue. Best of all, they are debuting new music from their hotly anticipated upcoming third album.
There will be no restraining my expectations on this evening. I expect one of the greatest nights of my life, and I have no doubt they will deliver. BUT… but. I have to remind myself of this one thing: Having already ruined me for other bands with songs like “Midnight,” “All At Once,” “All I Ever Wanted,” “Graveyard” and, most of all, “Innocence”… is it at all realistic to expect them to top those masterpieces? Is it even possible? And will I be disappointed if the new songs don’t quite reach those lofty standards?
I needn’t have worried. Because, tucked away in the middle of the set is a song that would become a new point of fixation for me in my ever-evolving Airborne Toxic Obsession.
After Steven opens with a quiet melody on the keys, the viola takes charge. Pensive at first, setting the stage. Increasing in intensity, growing urgent as the lovers’ discussion takes a turn for the serious. Breaking off as Mikel interjects. Everything.
And then – expectations smashed. Anna steps forward, but instead of raising the instrument to her shoulder as per usual, she leaves it hanging by her side. She leans into the microphone and sings. Solo.
Do you really want to hear that?
Why is everyone staring?
Were you happy? Were you honest?
Did you ever believe that any of this was real?
No. No I didn’t. Is this real? Ever since I’d first laid ears on her harmonies in the “Graveyard” bombastic video, I’d hoped that someday, Anna would be given more of a vocal role. The blend of her voice with Mikel’s is pure magic.
But of course, the song is only beginning. The viola returns soon enough, first revisiting the earlier urgency; then calming us, allowing us to breathe; and finally ramping up again, in tandem with Mikel’s furious guitar, driving us towards an aural explosion that finally gives way to the desperate plea: Just say it to me! I don’t care if you mean it.
But I do. I do mean it. They’ve done it to me again.
One of the few decent concert photos I’ve ever taken. Anna Bulbrook: Vancouver, 2011.
Let’s just get this out there, shall we? “Innocence” is the most outstanding piece of music I have ever heard. No other song can carry me away and drown out the world like this one (and believe me, with four kids and two too many jobs, I can use some drowning out once in awhile).
So why then has it taken me three months of blogging about TATE to dare touch this song? Frankly, I’m terrified that I can’t do it justice. I don’t have words to express how deeply this music moves me.
To me, in “Innocence” we see five musicians at the absolute peak of their powers, both individually and collectively. Regardless of which player I am wrote about for this series on the top five moments for each band member, “Innocence” was guaranteed to be on the list. In an 8-minute masterpiece, there’s room enough for all of them to steal the spotlight.
But for Anna in particular, this song is something special. It showcases her full range with the viola. At times it hums in the background, a steady tone underlying Mikel’s guitar and vocals (1:45). She combines with Noah’s bass to heighten the musical tension with a full 45-second instrumental interlude in the middle of the “Heaven is a Map” intro (2:35), serving notice that the band is in no hurry; this song will not be rushed. When the rest of the band falls silent, the viola remains, alone, somehow both adding to the peace and piercing it (3:57).
As the delicate strains of “Heaven is a Map” give way to the ferocity of “Innocence,” Anna disappears – not visibly (she’s clearly as entranced as we are, 5:24), but audibly. But when she resurfaces, it’s with another heart stopping solo that lifts the band to yet another height, if it can be imagined (5:44). From there, she’s omnipresent: head bowed, feet stomping, bouncing, rocking, whirling… and all the while, her insistent melody carries us along.
And then she’s on top of a speaker, delicately plucking the strings (7:49) as the band catches its breath for the finale: a spectacular assault that sees the high-heeled violist jumping from said speaker to stage, whereupon she attacks her instrument with a fierceness that proclaims: the classical musician has gone full-on rock chick, and she ain’t coming back (8:05).
She hogs the camera for the final minute; lost in the music, her performance is magnetic, and impossible to turn away from. And as the final note sounds, we are spent.
So how is it that my favorite song winds up #2 on this list? Well, #1 is pretty iconic…
1. Sometime Around Midnight
Could #1 be anything other than the opening bars of “Sometime Around Midnight?” For a great many fans, including me, they were the first notes we ever heard from The Airborne Toxic Event, and the only ones we needed to become forever converted.
Anna’s prologue to TATE’s signature song is simultaneously majestic and melancholy. It signals the start of an epic tale; the tone hints that it won’t be a happy one. And yet it also foretells a coming explosion: an explosion of emotion; an explosion of sound.
In concert, it’s the moment when anticipation reaches its apex. The preceding number ends. The band delays a moment to allow the noise of the crowd to die down (relatively speaking). The musician steps into the lone spotlight, assumes her stately position, raises her bow. The viola cries out, and no matter how many times you’ve previously experienced it, chills rip down your spine.
“Sometime Around Midnight” is a perfect song. Perfect lyrics, capturing an experience that’s been shared by millions, but never expressed with this eloquence. Perfect energy, music swelling and ebbing in lockstep with the mood of the storyteller. Perfect vocals, the singer straining to the point of breaking, just as the woman in the white dress would break him in two.
And, prior to all that, a perfect intro: one that defines not just a song, but the ethos of a band. A marriage of rock and symphony that is utterly unlike anything I’ve ever heard – and utterly captivating.
Purchase the Best of Anna:
Half of Something Else – Going the Distance (Original Motion Picture Soundtrack)
Sometime Around Midnight
Bonus: Anna talks about the trials and fun of being the lone girl amongst a gang of boys.
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.