The Airborne Toxic Event switch to synths on ‘Dope Machines’ with mixed results

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The Airborne Toxic Event - 'Dope Machines'

In 2013, The Airborne Toxic Event released Such Hot Blood to mixed reviews from fans and a general shrug from the world of music. Perhaps the album was overproduced; maybe it was just more of the same. Whatever the case, the band’s latest release, Dope Machines, takes the group in a fresh direction that attempts to veer away from the looming fate of mediocrity.  TATE’s once-orchestral indie-rock sound has been replaced by a brigade of synths, dance beats and sing-along choruses. The album makes no attempt to pass as something it’s not and instead proudly steps into the world of synth-driven pop. Though at times Dope Machines falls into similar plights as Such Hot Blood, the new release certainly offers something new to fans.  At the least, the album avoids an aimless repetition of the past and manages to stand shamelessly unique among TATE’s discography.

Dope Machines doesn’t introduce itself under any false pretenses.  It’s evident from the beginning that things are different.  When “Wrong” opens the album with a clearly artificial drum machine followed by bursts of synths, the old TATE is nowhere to be found.  Soon enough a guitar sneaks in, but it recedes promptly to a radio-ready chorus.  There will be no guitar-based indie rock, no heart-wrenching strings, no sentimental acoustic numbers.  If you want nothing else, then spend no time here. “Wrong” continues to reveal typical pop characteristics such as prominent drums and bass backing layers upon layers of vocals and electronics, but don’t write it off too soon—there’s still some life in the song.  The chorus is catchy, there’s no escaping that.  At the same time, the bleeping electronics and pleasingly cheesy drum machine create an aesthetic uncommon of vapid pop—one might be so bold as to think of indie rock’s close relative lofi synth-pop instead.  The contrast between the punch of the chorus and the gentler beginnings of the verses illustrates the songwriting capability of frontman Mikel Jollett—something that drifts in and out on Dope Machines. If one thing has stayed the same across the years it’s TATE’s knack for writing songs that get stuck in your head.  The means of how has changed a lot, but the end result remains the same.

TATE doesn’t bother changing from their festival ready electronica and, for better or worse, continues to pump out catchy, piled-high tunes. When focusing on choruses made for jumping up and down, Dope Machines showcases a surprisingly effective transition from indie to pop.  From the beginning through “Hell And Back,” TATE focuses on their pop songwriting with a bit of indie-rock influence.  After that point, the band moves away from power-pop in favor of a softer sound.  The album can be divided cleanly after “Hell And Back” into an catchy pop song section and an electronic take on alternative rock section—each with its own strengths and weaknesses.

The biggest problem comes somewhat expectedly with the shift towards a pop style: The lyrics often come off banal or contrived, most noticeably on Jollett’s awkwardly out of character hookup recap “One Time Thing” and the embarrassingly sappy “Time To Be A Man”—which sounds humorously similar to Trey Parker and Matt Stone’s “Now You’re A Man” from their film Orgazmo.  Some lines give the appearance of half-hearted attempts to rhyme with little care about how it will fit within the song, others just sound like empty buzz phrases.  While the whole album doesn’t fall victim to shoddy lyrics, the failure to portray sincere emotion throughout Dope Machines will likely hurt the longevity of its memory.  “California” stands as a noteworthy counter to this trend. The analysis of west-coast living becomes a documentary of Millennial lifestyle with anything but weak lyrical content.  Jollett’s delivery rivals just about any TATE song when he sings, “Someday they’re gonna forget about us and we’ll wonder if we were ever good enough/It hit me last night in this song I heard: I remember the feeling but forget all the words.”

After TATE turns down some on the latter half of ‘Dope Machines’ they exhibit a considerably wider range of musical variety.  These songs aren’t necessarily stronger, but they do stand out as different from the more one-dimensional songs that have come so far.  The standout of the album’s final tracks comes in the dreamy sway of “The Thing About Dreams.”  The reverberating background vocals and thick synths that can start to feel cluttered or out of place on some previous tracks fit better here and in the other softer arrangements.  “Something You Lost” provides interest by repeatedly teasing a crescendo that never quite comes, and “Chains” probably gets the closest to a classic TATE sound with the clearest guitar and strings on the album.

Many may view the group’s abandonment of their indie-rock swagger and layered strings with disdain, but truth be told, the group had worn the sound out.  While the TATE of old will be missed, it’s hard to imagine them improving that sound much after Such Hot Blood. The band should be praised for not producing a hollow imitation of their first two albums.  After all, what TATE fan didn’t at one point wish the band could take over writing pop songs? Dope Machines may not be quite novel, but when viewed independently of expectations from previous releases the album showcases some decent pop songwriting.