Review: Dope Machines, The Airborne Toxic Event

By Glen

“We’re kind of genre-less. I think we play lots of styles of music… We’re musicians in the purest sense in that we’re not stuck to a genre. We just like music. If we liked polka, we’d probably play polka.”
– Mikel Jollett

The Airborne Toxic Event, Dope MachinesFor almost a year now, Mikel Jollett of The Airborne Toxic Event has been hinting at/warning of/ardently proclaiming a radical change in direction for the band’s fourth studio album, Dope Machines. He has been at once aware that some fans may not like it (“If people aren’t mad about this next record, I’ll feel like I failed”), chagrined that anyone would object to an artist breaking new artistic ground (“I find it really weird that people can’t wrap their head around the fact that as a musician you would want to make more than one type of music”), unapologetically defiant (“People keep asking us, are you a rock band, a folk band, an electronic band? The answer is, fuck off!”) and, above all, certain of his course (“This isn’t what The Airborne Toxic Event is supposed to be; this is who we are”).

On one occasion Jollett famously declared, “I kind of want to destroy the sound of the band. That’s kind of my goal on this next record, is just completely explode any expectations we or anyone else has about what we sound like;” on several others he likened the magnitude of the shift from Such Hot Blood to Dope Machines to the transformation that Radiohead undertook between The Bends and OK Computer.

And make no mistake: the musical makeover of TATE is significant. But just as noteworthy as the sounds emanating from the speakers is the means by which they came to be.

Even more than the style, some longtime Airborne listeners were concerned over early indications that the fourth album would be made with less direct involvement on the part of the other band members than previous TATE recordings. Take, for example, this comment from Jollett’s interview with Darren Rose last spring: “There’s not going to be a ton of drumming on the next record. I mean, Daren’s gonna definitely play a bunch of stuff, but we’re gonna sort of mix it together with stuff that’s programmed.”

The genesis of Dope Machines involved Jollett holing himself up in a room and writing a ton of music. Of course, that was true of the first three albums as well. But this time, rather than taking his solo work as a starting point and building upon that foundation with his bandmates, Jollett instead emerged from his cocoon with what he felt at the time was a near-finished product, and confidence that he had achieved what he had set out to do. As he said in the interview referenced above:

“When I sit down to write something, in a few days I can get really close to what a finished product is gonna sound like. And doing that has forced me to make a lot more choices that I used to leave up to chance… I’m producing the next record, completely; I’m not even bringing in another producer at all, and it’s forced me to make choices that I wouldn’t normally have had to make. It’s also massively meticulous, every single effect, every single thing, trying to get it right. But then what’s good about that is I really have to own it; I really have to think through what I want this thing to sound like.

“That’s how I’m doing this record. It’s really close to done. And I don’t want to reproduce it in some expensive, fancy studio in Nashville… I want it to sound like how I want it to sound, ’cause whatever decision I made at 3 am after ten hours of wrestling with how a kick drum should sound at this part of a song, or how much reverb the vocals should have or what the compression rate should be on the fuckin’ keyboard or whatever it is, I trust that decision. I don’t want to redo it later, and I don’t want someone else to redo it.”

That Jollett stuck to his guns to a great extent is evident not only in the sound of the album (particularly the first half, where traditional guitars, violas and drums are shelved in favor of electronic synths, layered Jollett vocals and programmed drum machines) but also in the credits, which, unusually for TATE, name a number of guest contributors. Included in the list of helping hands are John K. Morrical, Jr., Math Bishop and Miguel Devivo, who all added keyboards to a number of tracks, as well as guest background vocalists Kenny Soto (“One Time Thing,” “Dope Machines” and “Time to be a Man”), Arnae Batson (“Dope Machines”) and Audra Mae (“California”).

Having said that, nine months have passed since Jollett’s initial revelations: three quarters of a year that included the official addition of a new band member, signing to a new label (Epic Records) and road testing the new material. To what extent these developments impacted the finished product, only those in the inner circle know, but the betting here is that Dope Machines evolved a great deal between then and now.

And now that it has in fact landed, what to make of the long-awaited, much-debated release?

As expected, the willingness of any given listener to leave their preconceived notions of how TATE is “supposed” to sound at the door may very well inform their response to the finished product. Though it’s true that, as Jollett has said, “our core fans that are really familiar with the breadth of things that we’ve done won’t be terribly surprised,” it’s also entirely likely that much of what initially drew any given fan to the band will be difficult to recognize on this release, if it’s there at all.

If some find themselves unable to get past what isn’t found on Dope Machines, it is both understandable and regrettable.

Understandable, because TATE BDM (Before Dope Machines) remains undeniably special. A violin in a rock song, lyrics that were obviously penned by a novelist and not a songsmith, and, yes, a supremely talented original bassist – all these elements and more have contributed to something that is truly unique in the 21st Century musical landscape, and no one wants to lose it.

Regrettable, though, because those who allow themselves to look beyond the past will find in Dope Machines the thrill of new discovery, a familiar voice speaking in fresh tones, a band that is resolute in its collective refusal to be hemmed in by anyone’s expectations, and a vastly broadened musical landscape that leaves the future wide open. If The Airborne Toxic Event was difficult to pigeonhole before, they are impossible now; where they go from here is anyone’s guess.

“We are not a franchise,” insists Jollett. “We’re artists. We’re just a group of musicians playing music. Sometimes that music is on acoustic guitars and sometimes it is on a bunch of crazy keyboards. Being an artist – you make stuff that makes the hair on your neck stand up. Sometimes that means a whispering folk song and sometimes that means a bunch of loud dance instruments.”

This time out, it means the latter. From bouncy lead single “Wrong,” to the funky earworm that is “One Time Thing,” to the everything-and-the-kitchen-sink aural adventure of a title track and on through the dreamy soundscape of the second half of the album, the language of choice is electronica.

But that doesn’t mean that The Airborne Toxic Event will never whisper again. Look no further than the bombshell the band dropped yesterday: a second, surprise album to be released concurrently with Dope Machines, an acoustic rock ‘n’ roll record called Songs of God and Whiskey. Featuring the already-beloved “The Fall of Rome,” which is as raw and poignant as anything in the TATE catalog, this unexpected gift should lay to rest any concerns that the Airborne of old, whatever that means, has been put to rest. (Note: we’ll have a full review of Songs of God and Whiskey on Tuesday.)

Even apart from this welcome news, the closing track of Dope Machines, “Chains,” serves as reassurance that everything we have come to love about the band remains alive and well amongst the new dimensions that have been added to their sound. After nine songs devoid of most classic TATE fundamentals, the grand finale rings in with the familiar chime of Steven Chen’s guitar, channeling the Edge in all his reverb glory. Daren Taylor’s drums thump loud and pure. And then, with barely two minutes to go, Anna Bulbrook’s breathless viola finally shows its face, almost as if to say with a wink, “You didn’t think we’d forgotten about her, did you?” And so this chapter comes to an end with an exquisite blend of old and new.

I can no more rank my favorite Airborne album than I can choose among my four children. To try would be a fool’s errand at the best of times, much less mere hours after adding a shiny new toy to the collection. But I will say this much: Dope Machines is the catchiest release of the band’s career to date, and it is certainly their boldest and in many ways most compelling step since their debut album. It can stand proudly alongside its predecessors, and may just provide a doorway for new listeners to discover their delights.

It may be different, but The Airborne Toxic Event has done it again.

Dope Machines: Track by Track

Wrong: The lead track and first single was a guitar-infused live favorite weeks before the polished, electro-pop studio version raised eyebrows across TATE nation. What the recording sacrifices in visceral punch, it makes up for in sheer danceability, setting the stage for an album full of surprises.

One Time Thing: After three weeks with this song on near-constant repeat and not even close to wearing out its welcome, I’m about ready to declare “One Time Thing” the most addictive TATE song of all time. Mikel Jollett insists that he did not set out to write radio hits, but he might very well have succeeded in doing so nevertheless. Propelled by a distorted, staccato bassline, this tale of misplaced romantic longing really catches fire in the second half.

Dope Machines: The title track is the shortest on the album, but it packs a ton of noise into its 3:17. Seemingly a half beat slower than the live version to which we’ve become accustomed, “Dope Machines” is a wicked combination of screechy guitar and shrill synths that rocks harder than any TATE release since “Welcome to Your Wedding Day.” There are so many competing elements going on at once that it seems like it shouldn’t work – and yet it does.

California: If “Dope Machines” seems slightly slower on the album than it does live, “California” seems sped up. On tour, the ode to the real face of the band’s home state is played straight down the middle as a crowd-pleasing, brisk ballad that would’ve been right at home on Such Hot Blood. The studio recording has more pep in its step, with electronic embellishments giving it a slicker feel. Notably, “California” marks the first time Jollett has shared songwriting credits with someone outside of the band (Linda Perry).

Time to Be a Man: “Time to Be a Man” is an odd amalgamation, marrying some of the most experimental moments on the album to an uncharacteristically conventional chorus that conjures images of a sea of cell phones (or lighters, given the nostalgic feel) waving in unison in a darkened arena. After opening with 20 seconds of bleeps and bloops that give off a sort of carnival-meets-eighties-video-game vibe, the song settles into a mainstream radio mode that sits a little uncomfortably on TATE. On the plus side, the song gives Bulbrook a chance to shine brightly with a dramatic vocal interlude.

Hell and Back: Originally released in the fall of 2013 as part of the Dallas Buyers Club soundtrack, the unexpected hit song established the blueprint for Dope Machines. At the time it seemed like a major departure, with its synth underbelly and electronic drumbeats. But after a year and a half as a rowdy live staple and presented within the context of an album that pushes the envelope much further, it actually comes across now as something of a throwback to old-time TATE – particularly the Changing-esque stomp of a chorus.

My Childish Bride: The tone of the album shifts dramatically from the opening drone of “My Childish Bride,” the first in a trilogy of downbeat, introspective numbers with subtle instrumentation (electronic and otherwise). “Bride” is set against a crisp background of what sounds like hand claps, which interestingly fits with Jollett’s original (and ultimately abandoned) vision for Airborne’s previous album, Such Hot Blood. Steven Chen is credited as a co-writer, and the writers’ lyrical proficiency steps to the forefront with clever, clipped phrasing.

The Thing About Dreams: Were you to drop straight into the chorus of this moody ballad, you would never guess it to be an Airborne song, however familiar with the band you may be. Delivered in an appropriately dreamy falsetto that reaches higher notes than one would expect a baritone like Jollett to hit, the refrain is bookended by plodding yet purposeful verses backed by sweeping, ethereal vocals reminiscent of the Bulbrook-fronted “Come Unwound” by The Bulls. The thing about “The Thing About Dreams” is that it ushers the listener into yet another heretofore unexplored dimension of the band.

Something You Lost: Jollett has identified “Something You Lost” as his favorite track on the album, and it’s not difficult to see why. Completing the trifecta of atmospheric reflections, the song is in no hurry to get where it’s going – each line delivered with intentional precision and increasing passion, as Jollett pleads with his lover to stay by his side. “Something You Lost” immediately takes its place among The Airborne Toxic Event’s most affecting pieces.

Chains: TATE 2.0 meets TATE 1.0. From Column A: Jollett’s vocals doubled or even tripled up over top of subtle synth undertones. From Column B: propulsive guitar riffs, live drums and a show-stopping (if brief) viola solo. In typical TATE fashion, the composition gradually ramps up in urgency before bursting into full-fledged anthem mode, transporting the listener to “a place with no center and no edge and no end.”

Click here to purchase Dope Machines from iTunes.

Glen, Fan of The Airborne Toxic EventGlen 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.

About thisisnowhere 410 Articles
Glen is the founder and editor of This Is Nowhere and author of Toxic History: The Story of The Airborne Toxic Event. 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.

13 Comments on Review: Dope Machines, The Airborne Toxic Event

  1. For Songs of God and Whisky – do NOT use a downloader like FireFox add-on DownloadThemAll. It ate my one and only allowed download attempt. (It downloaded an HTML redirect, not the .ZIP itself.) I replied to my purchase confirmation e-mail with hopes that someone will send me a replacement link. Fingers crossed. Optimistic but frustrated!

  2. Dope Machines didnt disappoint AT ALL. The whole album feels like a dream narrated by Mikel, the haunting echoes of Anna’s voice and the baritones fill a cloudy scape of electronic sounds that just makes me feel like a weightless waste journeying into a new world of music. I will admit I was concerned about the new sound, but this album shattered my doubts. This album is one big blowout to Airborne’s old sound in the best way possible.

    And to all the naysayers and those grasping hard to their past sounds, all I can say (in the most kindhearted way) is shut up and let go. Let this album carry you to some place new. Don’t compare it to the previous albums, listen to it as an invitation to a new sound. Blast your earphones or stereo and dance to it. Let it shake your bones. Let it boil you blod. Lose what you thought what The Airborne Toxic Event was for the entirety of the album and let it take you away.

    I hope they play all of their new songs off Dope Machines during their next tour because I sure as hell know already that I’ll be singing and dancing to my lungs extent at whatever venue I claw my way into to listen to them.

    Cheers,
    Nick

  3. Great review! I love Time to be a man! As un-TATE like as it may be, I’m infatuated with the vocals from Anna/ Mikel! The Thing about Dreams is just a masterpiece. I think its time to release some tour dates… 🙂

  4. I bought a copy of Dope Machines at my local record store this morning – and thought that I could purchase SOGAW on TATE’s website today… I’m only seeing an option to group a purchase of DM with a purchase of SOGAW – is this the only way to get a copy of SOGAW??

  5. What a nice review, Glenn.

    It took my a while to get excited by the new style, but now i love Dope machines from the first to the last track. But the SOGAW album is just absolutly mind blowing. These are happy days for Tate fans, and i’m glad to read your review while listening to both albums.

    Take care my friend

  6. What a nice review, Glenn.

    It took me a while to get excited by the new style, but now i love Dope machines from the first to the last track. But the SOGAW album is just absolutly mind blowing. These are happy days for Tate fans, and i’m glad to read your review while listening to both albums.

    Take care my friend

  7. For those saying we need to let the past go and embrace the new sound, I say (in my most kindhearted way) @#$%^ off. As long time fan, I am as entitled as any other to voice my displeasure over this trainwreck of a release. This album has left me completely heartbroken and disappointed in the sense that there is nothing whatsoever here that reminds me of the band that I fell in love with and have supported for all these years. I know i’m in the minority in my opinion, but I am ok with that. There are two types of fans, ones who applaud blindly anything a band they love puts out, and then the ones who will dare go against the grain and call out a band when they release material that is nowhere near the genius we all know they are capable of, I certainly fall into the latter category.

    One would be hard pressed to believe Anna, Steven, and Daren even played their respective instruments on this release. I am just shocked and saddened by the toybox casio tones layered over the constant droning of layered synths and late 80’s sounding electronic drums samples. I have struggled trying to grasp ahold of the usual heartfelt vocal lines, melodies, and passionate lyrics that Mikel is known for because the songs just sound so juvenile. I’m hearing that SOG&W at least retains some semblance of the band we all love, but alas I have no idea because I refuse to pay for an album i’m so let down by TWICE just to get the download.

    I realize many here (if not all) will trash me and my opinion saying i’m not a “real fan”, but I just felt the need to voice my feelings on the subject. Say what you will, but my dislike for this new direction doesn’t make me any less of a fan than anyone else here. I know what I like and what I have come to expect from TATE over the years, and unfortunately Dope Machines is not it. I am just thankful that I have four other brilliant studio and live records to still listen to by them.

    • Thanks for taking the time to share your thoughts, and so eloquently. Though I personally love the album, you are absolutely entitled to your opinion and it doesn’t make you any less of a fan. SOGAW is definitely a throwback to TATE’s early days. I hope you get a chance to hear it, because the band you love is alive and well.

      • I am sorry for the over abundance of negativity in my post, I just needed to vent somewhere, somehow. I am just so saddened and concerned that everything I loved about TATE might be gone forever with this new direction. I have been to countless shows and have turned hundreds of people onto this amazing little gem of a band I discovered by accident 7 years ago. TATE’s music hit me in a way no other band ever has and I am passionate as hell about them and their music. As much as it pains me to say, I just cannot get past this new direction they have chosen to go and it hurts. As a musician myself of 28 years, there are very few bands I feel so strongly about and even fewer that have struck a chord with me the way TATE has. Fans in other forums of social media who don’t share my opinion just sit back and question your status of being a real fan for not supporting the new direction, and it just kinda sucks that you get crucified for not being 100% in love with the new record. Again, sorry for being the debbie downer in this forum tonight.

  8. Great review of a great album. I really like the direction that they’ve taken with this new album, and I hope they continue it as they progress.

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