[7 March 2008]
In the UK, big things were—perhaps still are—expected of Air Traffic by some. Signed to EMI after one of those “major-label bidding wars” that signpost many a hotly-tipped ensemble’s rise to fame and lauded by, amongst others, the NME, the four-piece’s debut nevertheless failed to make a sizeable dent upon the British charts. Given EMI’s track record, Air Traffic’s major label future perhaps looks bleak, and it would come as a surprise to no one if the band to follow in the footsteps of the Thrills and Hell Is For Heroes in finding themselves deemed surplus to requirements by the behemothic conglomerate.
Unless, of course, Fractured Life, now due for arrival on the other side of the Atlantic, can appease its architects’ overlords in the US. But the problem is that so many outfits snapped up amidst major label clamouring have missed their chance before it has even arrived. In the perpetual search for the Next Big Thing, bands that don’t really warrant mainstream exposure are handed it, giftwrapped, on a plate, while the fast-moving zeitgeist has already generated a glut of similar bands, bored the masses, and moved on.
However, Fractured Life is not as straightforward an affair as one first suspects. Sure, there is an element of trend-chasing to Air Traffic’s sound; the way, for instance, their debut flickers between spacious piano-led ballads a la Muse to the pop rock of the Feeling or the archetypically British spiky indie sound. Worrying also, is the press release’s attempts to draw Air Traffic comparisons to Radiohead—based solely, it appears, on the fact that they, too, come from a fairly small south-western town. But in the midst of this Air Traffic, and in particular chief songwriter and vocalist Chris Wall, radiate an undeniable sense of sincerity.
The one irrefutable point is this: Wall has a knack for writing damn catchy choruses, the type of extravagant, accessible, and big choruses usually inseparable from chart success and mainstream appeal. Almost every song on here could be a single; “Charlotte” with its punchy vivacity; “Just Abuse Me” with its jangly, bouncing piano; “Shooting Star” with its lovestruck doting—and all of them, with their big, catchy chorus lines. Air Traffic’s musical credential’s need no questioning either, with Wall’s voice particularly impressive, drifting from a markedly British croon to a swooning falsetto at whim.
The problem, though, is this: Air Traffic sound like so many other bands. Fractured Life is like a patchwork quilt of 21st century mainstream indie; a sonic montage of contemporary British pop-rock. This is not to say that the four-piece are mindless zeitgeist-chasers, for they are undoubtedly not—some of these songs were written while the band were at school, harbouring little realistic musical ambition. But this doesn’t alter the fact that, across the album’s twelve tracks, reference points are ten-a-penny—a bit of Muse here, some Keane there, elsewhere a dash of the Kooks and a scoop of the Hoosiers.
The extent of the problem this poses is subjective, really. If you like those bands, then you’ll like—maybe even love—Air Traffic. Undoubtedly they are good at what they do—much more so, in fact, then many of their contemporaries. Certainly, there are far less objectionable—and infinitely more sincere—than other recent jangling piano pop-tarts (the Hoosiers, I’m looking at you). But it’s just that what they do happens to be what a lot of other people do, too, and this lack of individuality means that amongst the catchy chorus and plentiful hooks, there’s little that is truly special about this album. It has memorable moments: opener “Come On” benefits from the injection of some swagger into the band’s sound, while “Empty Space” is fragile and affecting. But the crux of the problems is that even here the scribe has to resist calling the former track’s swagger “Kasabian-esque” or likening the latter to Muse’s more delicate moments. This familiarity, you sense, will either be Air Traffic’s making, or their downfall.