by Cherie, contributing writer and editor
Most bands do one thing and they do it well. That’s certainly not the case for the Airborne Toxic Event. Each of the five band members is multitalented and those eclectic talents and passions help make the bands sound unique. Lead singer Mikel Jollett first made a career for himself not out of music, but out of writing. One of his short stories, The Crack, was published alongside a novella by Stephen King in McSweeney’s Quarterly Issue #27. Anna Bulbrook is a classically trained violinist who has also played shows with hip hop legend Kanye West. Noah Harmon has played in both rock and jazz bands and can also play the upright bass. Steven Chen also made his start as a writer and was asked to join the band as their keyboardist before he revealed that he played the guitar as well. The band plays frequently with orchestras and symphonies, most often with the classically trained Calder Quartet. When they aren’t playing rock shows with TATE, the Calder Quartet can be found preforming with the National, another prominent indie rock band, as well as playing sold out shows featuring the works of Beethoven and Mozart.
Such Hot Blood is the band’s third album and with it comes a sense of maturity. The bands first self-titled album was mostly about losing the girl, case in point the band’s biggest single “Sometime Around Midnight.” The band’s second album All At Once was also about losing the girl and other failed relationships. Such Hot Blood deals with a lot of failed relationships but it also deals with the deeper concepts of love and loss. One common thread throughout the album is the idea of looking back on past relationships and realizing that despite how right them might have seemed at the time, they weren’t right in the end. Even a song that seems at first glance to be about a happy relationship, “True Love”, reflects on this idea, showing once more that maybe the relationships we think we need aren’t always the best ones for us in the end. “But they don’t know a goddamn thing about us / or a think about holding on / cuz we were wrong,” Jolett states.
The album’s opening track, “The Secret” comes in with driving synths and violins and immediately packs a punch. The song ebs and flows like the tide, building the listener up then easing them back down; its a classic Airborne track. The chorus loudly proclaims that “the secret’s out now” but the idea is embraced triumphantly as a relief instead of a disappointment. Group background vocals add an extra layer to the song and help build the swelling sound of the chorus. Its not my favorite song on the album, but it is a brilliant opening track in that the listener is once more swept up by the band and instantly connected to the music.
The album’s second track, and the band’s first single, Timeless, is a pounding anthem about losing someone very close to you. It’s raw and honest; there’s no fancy prose, no deep metaphors for death. There’s something painfully honest about the simplicity of the lyrics. “Just help me through this moment after everything I told you / how the weight of their loss was like the weight of the sun” Jollett pleads in the bridge. Anyone who has ever lost someone close to them can instantly relate to the song. The song was, of course, inspired by Jollett’s personal life, and losing three of his grandparents in a short period of time. “My whole perspective changed, and [death] went from being this whole idea of brokenness and poetry to just…it became much more simple. And I just didn’t want it to have happened. And suddenly all the metaphors didn’t matter any more and I just wanted them to still be here,” he reveals in the track by track commentary featured on Spotify. Death and loss are not new concepts that Jollett has wrestled with in the past but Timeless is a new answer to those questions, and one that is a lot more real and honest.
“The Storm”, the fourth track on the album, presents us with the first lull of the album. The tempo starts off slow with just a simple acoustic guitar and some ambient noise. The change of pace is a welcome relief from the constant energy of the previous song, “What’s in a Name?”. The song slowly builds to the chorus where the drums come in along with the rest of the band. The violin is used sparingly on the track but comes in for a rocking solo towards the end of the song.
In the spotify commentary for the album, Jollett reveals that the song “The Fifth Day” was almost the last song on the album. “I thought about ending the record with Fifth Day …its kind of the apex of the record, the climax as it were…but I wanted to have an epilogue.” The last track of the album “Elizabeth” indeed plays the role of an epilogue perfectly. It’s less heavy than the rest of the record, and upon listening to it one can sense the band stepping back from the rest of the album a little. Jollett states the song came out of a conversation he had had with a friend, and it starts with Elizabeth asking Jollet to write her a love song. Her request is almost childlike and naïve in nature, “could you write me just one love song / and put my name somewhere in the middle of it / and if you call the song Elizabeth / then all my friends will know that its about me.” Finally at the end of the song Jollett comes right out and tells her that “all these songs are love songs / just love at times can make you feel like shit / so you write a string of words down / it’s better if there’s some truth in it.” The song ends with the parting admission that “ the truth is hard to admit / I’ve never known love this is just my best guess.” It’s like the ending to a really good book. That one line will leave the listener questioning what they know, both it terms of the songs they just listened to as well as in their own life.
When it comes to the sound of the album, there are some familiar sounds as well as a lot of new ones. The song “True Love” is reminiscent of their hit “Changing” with a plucky guitar base line but the band continues to experiment with some new sounds as well, utilizing the synthesizer versus a traditional piano on many tracks. The mandolin also makes an appearance once more for the catchy “True Love.” Ana’s vocal performance continues to be highlighted in many tracks, most notably the duet layered vocals on “The Fifth Day.” Looking back at their previous albums, we can clearly see a progression from the simple parts and melodies on The Airborne Toxic Event and the lush layers that weave themselves into the newer tracks and make for a much fuller sound.
But the band is equally able to strip away the excess and preform the same tracks acoustically to great effect. We are able to see this thanks to the bands commitment to producing what has been termed the Bombastic series. The Bombastic videos are a series of videos that have been produced for each album. Each song on the album is preformed by the band, live, acoustic, and the performance is filmed in one take. The resulting video is posted by the band on their website for fans to enjoy. The tradition stretches back to their first album, with each video being shot in a different locations. Some memorable locations from previous videos include a car, a moving merry-go-round, and a church. Its a way for the band to showcase the songs in a completely different light and each video only reaffirms the bands tremendous talent and creativity. So far three videos have been released for Such Hot Blood, “Timeless”, “The Storm,” and “True Love.”
You can watch the videos over on the bands website: http://www.theairbornetoxicevent.com/
Standout tracks: True Love, The Storm, Bride & Groom, This is London, Elizabeth