The Airborne Toxic Event’s fourth album, Dope Machines, is an ode to the modern age. It is ironically titled to draw attention to the dangers of social media and other vices found in our mainstream lives. In an interview with USA Today, lead singer Mikel Jollett said,
“Social media, endless Internet, all this crap that distracts your attention, so it’s all these dope machines that turn you into a dope.”
Clever as the analogy is, The Airborne Toxic Event’s album is ineffective in criticizing modern culture because of its dated, bland and popularized sound. In an attempt to go counterculture, they’ve utilized pop culture. By deviating from their previously indie rock style, the L.A. foursome resorts to music made for the masses, perfectly average and altogether lacking in any notable qualities. While past albums have a unrefined, raw sound, Dope Machines is 10 tracks of refined mush — lacking in originality, creativeness or notability.
Starting off as an indie pop album as expected, Airborne opens with the track “Wrong.” It is a The Postal Service beat on PCP, paired with colloquially formatted lyrics delivered in a tone that anyone can rock out to.
From then on, lead singer Mikel Jollett delivers his elementary lyrics atop various catchy electronic beats and a heavy synthesizer. The backup singers complement Jollett with well-placed “oo’s” for embarrassingly ineffective artistic flair.
Each song undoubtedly hits its intended mark, inducing a mental “Hey, I might tap my foot to this!” However, as the flavorless sound sets in, the song is quickly abandoned. In short, the concert-ready, designed-for-radio intention of the album is incredibly evident. “California,” “Hell and Back” and “Time to be a Man” in particular exud the “designed for the masses” sound of their February release.
The lyrics are sadly reminiscent of Nickelback’s level of creativity. In their ode to West Coast culture, “California,” Jollett painfully delivers lyrics such as, “She said, ‘I got money, but I got no friends’ as we drove through the valley in her daddy’s Benz / She said, ‘These pills wear off, but the pain don’t end.’” Clearly formulated for low I.Q. valley-girls, the simplicity of the lyrics show the album’s intent to simply sound catchy, failing to provide much depth on the artistic and musical side of things.
There’s a lot going on in the album, but not much substance. Beats are crisp and clear, but they lack inventive flair. “Dope Machines” — in particular — presents a fake-grunge sound, basic drum beats and poor lyricism. “One Time Thing” sports lyrics taken straight from the lovestruck brain of a middle-schooler and transposes them over a repetitive bass-line and annoying vocals. With minimal creativity exercised in production, boring beats means Dope Machines is hard to listen to more than once.
Dope Machines is strongest in its last few tracks. After casting a bid for “most horrendously vanilla sounding indie rock song of 2015” with “Hell and Back,” The Airborne Toxic Event tries to salvage its shattered and sobbing dignity. They slow down the beats, introducing some muffled and cathartic lyrics. With the change of pace, the previously overpowering synths find their place, and the sappy lyrics finally match their style.
Dreamy and smooth, the tunes “The Thing About Dreams,” “Something You Lost” and “Chains” embody the perfect “study song” — the shoddy lyrics present a potential headache when analyzed, but are perfect for zoning out to. Reinforced with well-timed background vocals, the one-dimensional musicality of the previous tracks fades away and reveals passable music. The album amounts to a tolerable crescendo of manufactured noise with “Chains,” a striking example of the creativity-debt and unoriginal sound.
Melodically the album is addictive. Dope Machines is undoubtedly formulated to resonate with the basic music connoisseur, but the lack of originality or avant-garde style makes the album destined to join the ranks of countless other good-intentioned indie pop albums. Overall, Dope Machines is everything you’ve already heard and nothing you necessarily need to.