SHORE FIRE MEDIA Indie-pop group The Airborne Toxic Machine is well worth the listen, with various instruments and chilling lyrics that demonstrate its talent.
Indie-pop group The Airborne Toxic Machine is well worth the listen, with various instruments and chilling lyrics that demonstrate its talent.

The Airborne Toxic Event’s “Dope Machines” is by far the band’s best album to date. In this latest release, the band managed to pull off a paradigmatic style shift from the angst-riddled indie of its early years to a mature, electronic-influenced sound that’s at once refreshing and somehow familiar.
When the first few singles were released, critics worried that the band was selling out, sacrificing its signature orchestral sound to fit into the indie-pop mainstream. In particular, they criticized the synth-heavy “Wrong,” released late last year, for throwing away the band’s usual preference for complex arrangements and real instruments.

Those criticisms fall flat when a closer listen reveals just how many layers and textures the band has managed to produce with this new, more electronic style. Yes, it’s borrowing from some newer techniques and using synthesized instruments, but it doesn’t feel like just another indie-pop album — it feels unmistakably Airborne.

Even if “Wrong” feels iffy in isolation, it makes complete sense as part of the album as a whole. As the opening track, it announces right away that this album is going to be different than any that The Airborne Toxic Event has released before. Gone are the rough edges of the band’s first two albums, replaced by a high-gloss, polished-to-perfection sound that outshines even its penultimate release, “Such Hot Blood.” The synth riffs that open and close the song are fun and almost danceable, but the vocals preserve the trademark scratchy heartbreak of lead singer/lyricist Mikel Jollett. It’s a musical leap forward into the digitized future for a band that’s still deeply grounded in its indie roots.

The band clearly hasn’t thrown away its guitars either. The distortion-heavy electric guitar that blasts through the title track and the acoustic chords that sneak into the very end of the sunny “California” offer hints at what came before.

Plus, for those fans that miss the good old days of real instruments and raw-edged rock ‘n’ roll, The Airborne Toxic Event had a surprise. On the same day they released “Dope Machines,” they also released a full-length folk album, “Songs of God and Whiskey.” The songs were written throughout the past 10 years while the band has been touring, recording and promoting their earlier albums, and they call back to the old alternative edge of Airborne’s earlier work with rugged live guitars and intense, almost aggressive lyrics.

Even on their primary album “Dope Machines,” where the band swapped real strings for synthesizers, tracks like “Time to be a Man” still manage to preserve the orchestral grandeur of the band’s earlier work, which occasionally featured full string arrangements. This song is clearly the musical climax of the album, with multiple electronic layers building up to an explosive chorus. It takes everything that’s good about the indie-pop genre — the fun of Matt & Kim, the intense drums of Bleachers — and infuses these elements with the unique literary gravity that frontman Jollett’s emotionally invested voice and lyrics offer.

Jollett has never been one to go in halfway, and this album is no exception. His poetic, emotionally charged lyrical images give us stunning lines like “We lean into the wind / riding our nerves and choking engines / built for a time not 50 years old,” and his passionate vocal performances feel like desperate pleas shouted from high-rise rooftops. These vocal and lyrical highlights are a large part of the reason that The Airborne Toxic Event didn’t lose its essence in the transition to a more electronic focus, and his honesty and ragged openness will forever be part of Airborne’s signature style.

The band also continues to acknowledge its Los Angeles background. It got its start in Eagle Rock, an LA suburb, and the unfailingly chill vibe of the second half of the album speaks to those origins. “California,” the album’s obvious homage to their hometown, paints a vivid picture of the Los Angeles they knew as young musicians: a city filled with idealistic artists and actors “stuck in the same scene / of nightmares and daydreams.” The Springsteen-esque vocals pair with the sunny pop beats and occasional harmonies to give the song the feel of a summer anthem, contrasting brilliantly with the uncertainty and hints of darkness in the lyrics.

“Chains” is the final ribbon on this perfect package of an album. Anna Bulbrook’s viola, which had a prominent voice throughout the band’s early albums, makes a sweet return in the bridge, reminding fans that the band hasn’t completely abandoned its musical past, only added on to it. The lyrics are rich with Jollett’s characteristic cinematic brilliance, offering moments of catharsis and closing with something poetic to ponder: “Does anyone remember where we came from, where we came to? A place with no center and no end.”

The Airborne Toxic Event certainly remembers where it came from, and hopefully the road ahead of it has no end in sight.

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