[20 January 2014]
PopMatters Associate Music Editor
“My Favorite Robot” seems like a bit of a misnomer for this band. These days, the very word “robot” suggests an overly simplistic, almost cartoonish view of technology and the future. It implies wind-up tin toys and The Jetsons. In musical terms, it makes you think of hipster synth-pop.
Indeed, My Favorite Robot are an electronic band. But they are not hipsters per se, even though they hail from indie mecca Toronto. Rather, James Teej, Jared Simms, and Voytek Korab are following the trajectory of DJs/producers who decide to make their own albums full of proper songs. And those songs are influenced more by the post-punk, dark wave, and industrial sounds of the 1980s.
That means you get lots of clean, minimalist, pulsing synths; snaky basslines; and simple, minor-key chord progressions. When there are vocals, they are of the rueful, moaning sort. They are not unpleasant, but rather detached and dejected. Actually, the most robotic thing about Atomic Age, My Favorite Robot’s debut album, is the systematic way it goes about its business. There aren’t many mistakes, but little stands out, either.
Atomic Age is all about motion, and little about heart. Perhaps the trio’s intent is to use their music to mirror the cold, technologically remorseless world we live in. But it takes something tangible to do that effectively. Whether it’s via a melody, an affecting lyric, an evocative sonic landscape, or a clever sample, the message needs to transcend the method. Depeche Mode have taken some flak over the last decade for becoming too mired in their state of synth-enhanced disillusion. But their skill at blending the line between machines and emotions is easy to take for granted, and an album like Atomic Age illustrates why.
My Favorite Robot creates a sense of fear and dystopia that is superficial and often downright clunky. Those brooding beats and minor chords are rote. The lyrics are usually world-on-my-shoulders clichés, such as “I can’t seem the hide the fact that I don’t care”, a line from “Here Tonight”. The very album title is too obvious, a less eloquent take on the “Life in the So-Called Space Age” epitaph for Depeche’s Black Celebration. The title track begins with a sample of Robert Oppenheimer’s infamous “Now I am become death, the destroyer of worlds” comments about the atomic bomb. It’s tough to decide what’s more damning—that Linkin Park used the same sample years ago, or that they did it more effectively and with more emotional impact.
Despite all these faults, taken on its own terms, Atomic Age is a palatable album. The percussive rhythm and staccato synth jabs of “The Circus” recall early, pre-digital Front 242, while the laconic “Here Tonight” sounds like something from New Order’s Movement. The bright synth lines of “Missing Time” let a little light in, while the album’s midsection emphasizes danceable beats over doomy vocals and is all the better for it.
There are a couple of truly special moments, too. “The War to End All Wars” makes good use of all of its eight minutes. It slowly but surely works up a thick, dark mood with stark synths and bass. Despite lyrics about “lovers and whores behind closed doors”, it works on an emotional level thanks to a crescendo of arching, heavily-reverbed synths and sharp programming. You sense you are actually in a Brave New World rather than just listening to a song about one. The best track, single “Looking for Frost”, has a similar effect, only more powerful. Again making good use of space and dynamics, the track goes all-in on the ominous synths and portent. A couple of minutes in, a repeating synth sequence kicks in and the track moves to a level that approaches techno-industrial greatness. Sure, Skinny Puppy and others mastered this type of thing decades ago, but that doesn’t make it any less welcome.
So, no, My Favorite Robot are not as whimsical as their name might suggest. Nor is Atomic Age as thematically deep as it wants to be. Taken together, it all suggests that maybe the band should ditch the vocals and “songs” and stick to the atmospheres they are best at creating.