The name AUTOBAHN conjures up ideas of sleek, futuristic highways in Germany or perhaps the 1974 Kraftwerk album and title track. Actually, the band is from Leeds and they do have an electronic influence though it is not their primary sound. Composed of lead singer and principal songwriter Craig Johnson, guitarists Michael Pedel and Gavin Cobb, bassist Daniel Sleight and drummer Liam Hilton, Johnson chose the name because he loved the repetition of rhythm and requested that they “imagine they were all the different parts of a steam engine”.
While The Moral Crossing utilizes more electronics than their debut album Dissemble, it and AUTOBAHN are based on electric guitar and organic drums beginning with the guitar-oriented energetic instrumental “Prologue” and then “Obituary” with punkish vocals. AUTOBAHN then shifts into a different gear with the hazy vocals, keyboard lines, and synth effects which slip right along with the appropriately-titled “Future”. “The Moral Crossing” is ominous and foreboding, the sound of some dark beast flying overhead. The vocals are detached. It all culminates/crashes into a roughly a minute of repetitive, nervous guitar, cello, violin, and brooding synth. The violin and cello are the results of Johnson listening to classical music. For example, he saw the Warsaw Philharmonic Orchestra perform Beethoven’s Ninth and wanted to bring those influences to The Moral Crossing.
“Torment” brings together French female vocals, orchestral sounds, vocals from a new wave band no one can name, and yearning guitar. The first part of “Low/High” repeats and drags itself along until the last minute and a half, which revs up and rocks out; perhaps this is the “High” part of the song. What sounds like a drawn out yell repeats periodically through the section. The opening riff of “Execution (Rise)” has characteristics of industrial metal before ending with noise and another low, ominous synth sound. Then there is the pacing, dark buildup of “Creation”. The first three minutes are a spoken word list, a litany. Then, it throttles into a new phase in which a high, strident voice sings a chorus after the spoken word lists/verses. “Fallen” uses a sad, jangly guitar line with string music in the background. A low voice seems to accuse. The vocals become more frantic and emotional as the singer asks, “which way is heaven?” “Vessel” with its phrase “I wanted to die” sounds oddly inspirational, but it’s not the only song that creates a feeling of extremes and dichotomies.
For example, on “Low/High”, Johnson sings, “You’re floating higher now / No more discontent” and in “Creation” he says’, “I want to be there for you / I want to rise on through.” Gospel singers from a local church sing on both tracks. Johnson says, “I wouldn’t call it ‘holy’ but some of the lyrics they were singing were about going to a higher place, even if the whole lyric might contradict that”. Despite the emotional heaviness of the album, there are pockets of optimism.
The vocals are low and far away in the mix, becoming another instrument neither less than nor more important than any of the other instruments. Aesthetically, this works, but from a practical standpoint, suffocating the vocals makes it hard to hear what Johnson says.
The band’s page states that “Johnson’s lyrics on The Moral Crossing combine to form a whole: the theme of a birth.” However, “that person had no choice in the decision. And then it’s about the different outcomes that could happen, which could be glorious or torturous.” Perhaps this is why there are so many sounds, so many paths on the album. There is a continuity in the overall sound of the album, but the songs don’t sound the same. At times, it’s difficult to believe Johnson performs all of the lead vocals since the style shifts from dreamy, to punk, to soaring and urgent, from high to low, to something like the sound of a monk chanting.
Despite all of the turns and different elements, the album never breaks down or threatens to seize up. Ultimately, all the parts come together forming a bleak, moving, and dark engine of an album.