My Favorite Robot: Atomic Age

The debut from the Toronto dark wave trio is not quite the black celebration it aims to be.

My Favorite Robot

Atomic Age

Label: No. 19 Music
US Release Date: 2013-09-16
UK Release Date: 2013-09-10
Artist website

"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.


The Best Metal of 2017

Painting by Mariusz Lewandowski. Cover of Bell Witch's Mirror Reaper.

There's common ground between all 20 metal albums despite musical differences: the ability to provide a cathartic release for the creator and the consumer alike, right when we need it most.

With global anxiety at unprecedented high levels it is important to try and maintain some personal equilibrium. Thankfully, metal, like a spiritual belief, can prove grounding. To outsiders, metal has always been known for its escapism and fantastical elements; but as most fans will tell you, metal is equally attuned to the concerns of the world and the internal struggles we face and has never shied away from holding a mirror up to man's inhumanity.

Keep reading... Show less

In Americana music the present is female. Two-thirds of our year-end list is comprised of albums by women. Here, then, are the women (and a few men) who represented the best in Americana in 2017.

If a single moment best illustrates the current divide between Americana music and mainstream country music, it was Sturgill Simpson busking in the street outside the CMA Awards in Nashville. While Simpson played his guitar and sang in a sort of renegade-outsider protest, Garth Brooks was onstage lip-syncindg his way to Entertainer of the Year. Americana music is, of course, a sprawling range of roots genres that incorporates traditional aspects of country, blues, soul, bluegrass, etc., but often represents an amalgamation or reconstitution of those styles. But one common aspect of the music that Simpson appeared to be championing during his bit of street theater is the independence, artistic purity, and authenticity at the heart of Americana music. Clearly, that spirit is alive and well in the hundreds of releases each year that could be filed under Americana's vast umbrella.

Keep reading... Show less

Two recently translated works -- Lydie Salvayre's Cry, Mother Spain and Joan Sales' Uncertain Glory -- bring to life the profound complexity of an early struggle against fascism, the Spanish Civil War.

There are several ways to write about the Spanish Civil War, that sorry three-year prelude to World War II which saw a struggling leftist democracy challenged and ultimately defeated by a fascist military coup.

Keep reading... Show less

'Foxtrot' Is a 'Catch-22' for Our Time

Giora Bejach in Fox Trot (2017 / IMDB)

Samuel Maoz's philosophical black comedy is a triptych of surrealism laced with insights about warfare and grief that are both timeless and timely.

There's no rule that filmmakers need to have served in the military to make movies about war. Some of the greatest war movies were by directors who never spent a minute in basic (Coppola, Malick). Still, a little knowledge of the terrain helps. A filmmaker who has spent time hugging a rifle on watch understands things the civilian never can, no matter how much research they might do. With a director like Samuel Maoz, who was a tank gunner in the Israeli army and has only made two movies in eight years, his experience is critical.

Keep reading... Show less

South Pole Station is an unflinching yet loving look at family in all its forms.

The typical approach of the modern debut novel is to grab its audience's attention, to make a splash of the sort that gets its author noticed. This is how you get a book deal, this is how you quickly draw an audience -- books like Fight Club, The Kite Runner, even Harry Potter each went out of their way to draw in an audience, either through a defined sense of language, a heightened sense of realism, or an instant wash of wonder. South Pole Station is Ashley Shelby's debut, and its biggest success is its ability to take the opposite approach: rather than claw and scream for its reader's attention, it's content to seep into its reader's consciousness, slowly drawing that reader into a world that's simultaneously unfamiliar and totally believable.

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.