Originally printed in The Declaration February 2015

For their fourth studio effort, Dope Machines, anthemic indie-rock veterans The Airborne Toxic Event abandon their usual guitar and string arrangements in favor of synth pop. It’s an ingenious move that gives their sound, at risk of stagnation, a new lease on life.

Simple, shallow synth pulses serve as a sonic counterpoint to Mikel Jolett’s ever-emotional vocals, and the album has an overall subdued character in contrast to past records, which dripped with unchained sentiment.

“Am I trying too hard, am I doing this right?” Jolett asks on album opener “Wrong,” an appropriate ode to self-doubt. At worst, his fears are realized, resulting in vapid pop gestures like “California” or anticlimactic tracks like “My Childish Bride,” where Jollet’s literary aspirations don’t quite gel with the electronics.

At best, however, the group finds a bright finish that reigns in their tendency to cross from emotive to maudlin. It works best where it meshes with more organic textures, like the title track’s dirty guitar riff or the violin flourishes of “Chains.” It’s an inconsistent record, but one that shows there’s plenty of ground left for The Airborne Toxic Event to cover, and plenty of worthwhile songs to be found along the way.

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