Airborne Toxic Event - All At Once

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by Julie Stoller

From the beginning, you know that All At Once is going to be a major departure from what you thought you knew about The Airborne Toxic Event. The title track is an epic masterpiece about the stages of life, from birth to death, and sudden, perception-altering change. All At Once is enormous in scope, in its message and execution, and features the Calder Quartet, (who also play on "All For a Woman" on the new record.) The song revisits their beautiful arrangement of this lovely song, first heard at their 2009 Disney Hall performance, in all its orchestral, sweeping grandeur...

“Then we long to be loved, in the rush we become some things we thought we’d never be. We were surprised by our heart, left wary and scarred, from the nights spent feeling incomplete. And all those evenings swearing at the sky, wishing for more time.”

GROWING PAINS - I’ve been enjoying The Airborne Toxic Event since first listening to demos in 2008, and followed their steady ascent, which for me began at a downtown Boston Irish bar for about 150 people. They released their wonderful debut album on Majordomo, and proceeded to tour for the next 36 months in support. That album grabbed hold of my ears and wouldn’t let go, yet I now find myself approaching their follow-up, nearly three years later, with a curious mix of anticipation and trepidation. Why? Because in that time, they signed with Island Records, amassed a large audience of “casual listeners” with their radio hit, “Sometime Around Midnight”, and spent 2010 in a fancy Hollywood studio with world-renown producer Dave Sardi (Band of Horses, The Walkmen, Oasis). It made me a little nervous. This is the first time I stumbled upon a band early on, and not 10 years after everyone else, so I’m new to this whole “grappling with success” thing. I’m not sure how the band is coping, but as for myself, not terribly well.

In Stores Today:


“All For A Woman” is an unabashedly romantic ballad which slowly builds into a heart-swelling, soaring eagle of a song as singer Mikel Jollett contemplates ‘the muse that inspires the art’ (“It was all, it was all, for the look in her eyes / for the promise, and the lie, of a woman.”)

“It Doesn’t Mean a Thing” is a sweet, heartfelt rockabilly-folk tune for Mikel’s hippie parents, in their youthful innocence, trying to understand life’s mysteries and injustices. - “it was a loneliness they would confess, like the world had gone bad I guess, so they’d hold hands, look into the eyes of God / they’d say, ‘tell me why’d you hide from us, why’d you fill this world with wickedness, why’d you spare us from your grace but not the rod?’”

In “The Kids Are Ready To Die,” Mikel examines the making of a soldier, how society exploits a young person’s pent-up anger and restlessness for the purpose of warfare, turning inner rage outward, and addresses the repercussions - “But the day will come when it falls like a cheap house of plastic / and the cards that were dealt will be tossed like a storm in the sky / ‘cause you can only lie for so long before you get something drastic / and the kids are lined up on the wall, and they’re ready to die.” This song, slowed down from its original fast-paced punk tempo to a somber funeral march, carries enormous gravitas.

Confrontational and explosive, “Welcome To Your Wedding Day” has an exotic feel with a punk rock aesthetic. It recalls the news story of a predator drone accidentally hitting an Afghani wedding, and points out the hypocrisy of U.S. words and actions, combining a Middle Eastern melody with a war march of American aggression and bravado – “It’s another fine day of nation building / Let’s have a parade / You can dance on the graves and the bones of the children / If you know what to say”.

For all the chaotic fury that begins All At Once, the album closes with the quiet fragility of “The Graveyard Near the House”, about sharing one’s life and growing old with someone, fears of loss, commitment, and disconnection (“And it left me to wonder if people will ever know each other or just stumble around like strangers in the dark. 'Cause sometimes you seem so strange to me, I must seem strange to you. We're like two actors playing our parts.”). A perfect marriage of music and lyrics, it features Mikel on acoustic guitar and soft vocals, with Anna’s beautiful harmony, a simple piano melody and viola adding an emotional layer at the end. It’s a beautiful close to an amazing achievement.

My Thoughts - My key criticism of this album is with the production. The trick, now that they have access to a professional studio and a full array of technology, is to know when not to use it. That cavernous big studio sound and liberal use of reverb gives the music an austere feel, and makes the band sound like they’re a great distance away. Sonically, it’s like being at the back of a giant hall, and perhaps it’s to prepare us purists for that very experience, though it’s not one I look forward to. Their performance is passionate; the music is 1,000 times more powerful.

But as a fan, I no longer feel like they’re playing in my living room, and that saddens me. The addition of synthesizers gives the album a distinctly ‘80s feel, and while I’m a fan of those days, it contributes to the austerity. Everything seems a little too perfect, too polished. Playing so much in the past three years, I expect them to sound tight and accomplished, but this is different. For stark contrast, check out their “Bombastic Series” – acoustic, one-shot, one take video clips for each song.

Marketing the Music - For better or for worse, the band is being marketed to a more mainstream audience now. “Changing” and “Numb”, U.S. and UK singles respectively, are very radio-friendly and far more commercial-sounding than anything else on the album. Even the production on the new album is designed to give them a bigger sound, which seems to further ambitions toward stadium-sized success. It’s ironic, then, that the two major rock publications, Rolling Stone and NME, both quickly dismissed the new album, and that the most thoughtful review so far is from fellow blogger Drowned in Sound. Sophisticated songwriting, complex arrangements and weighty subject matter does not make for an easy ride. It’s the sort of music that requires something of the listener beyond passive reception, and not everyone cares to make that commitment. It remains to be seen if mainstream music fans are up to the challenge (I hope they are).

The Airborne Toxic Event
Somerville, MA - 9/8/10

photos by's Kira Doucette

The Future - So here I am now, faced with the prospect that my beloved little indie band who could do no wrong is now involved in an increasing number of mainstream trappings, and I must look past all that to focus on the music, and only the music. Never mind slickly-produced videos (“Changing”), appearances on godawful tv shows (“The Daily Habit”), mainstream music fans and “alternative radio” naming them alongside bland manufactured bands, and ill-advised marketing decisions that currently have hardcore fans grumbling about having to buy multiple copies of the new album for various bonus tracks poked individually into each configuration like Easter eggs. I’m preparing myself for their foray into ‘herd-em-in-like-sheep’ stadium shows, and anything else that puts distance between me and my favorite band. If this were anyone other than Airborne, I might have already bolted. But there’s the music, you see.

Those painstakingly crafted little gems that take my breath away with artistically woven melody and poetry. Individually and together, this band has developed over the past few years in a beautiful way. From Daren Taylor’s heart-pounding percussion that drives the music and perfectly punctuates every phrase and nuance, to Noah Harmon’s jazz bass groove, picking up a bow to become half of the band’s makeshift string section. There’s Steven Chen’s minimalist lead guitar heroics, with each melodic line and flourish lingering in the air, and the stunning fragile beauty of Anna Bulbrook’s viola, equally comfortable romping through a Johnny Cash cover. Anna’s ethereal backing vocals as the perfect counterpoint to Mikel’s moody baritone and poetic storytelling. This ragtag gathering of sensibilities and styles combine in a symbiotic way to create sonic magic and cathartic release, elevating their live performances into special events. For all that, I’ll gladly drink the kool-aid.

For More on the The Airborne Toxic Event
Visit author Julie Stoller's personal site

The Next Month

4/25 - 4/28 LA shows sold out
4/29 Los Angeles, CA
John Anson Ford Amphitheatre
4/30 EdgeFest - Frisco, Texas
5/1 BuzzFest - Houston, Texas
5/2 - 5/5 NYC shows sold out
5/6 New York City, NY
Town Hall
5/7 Philadelphia, PA sold out
5/8 Washington, DC
9:30 Club
5/9 Philadelphia, PA
The Trocadero
5/11 Boston, MA
House of Blues
5/12 Montreal, Quebec
La Tulipe
5/13 Toronto, Ontario (sold out)
5/14 Cleveland, OH – House of Blues
5/15 Columbus, OH – Newport Music Hall
5/17 Minneapolis, MN – The Varsity Theater
5/18 Chicago (sold out)
5/19 Chicago, IL
5/20 Kansas City, MO
The Beaumont Club
5/22 Austin, TX
La Zona Rosa
5/24 Atlanta, GA
Variety Playhouse
5/26 Fort Lauderdale, FL
Culture Room
5/27 Orlando, FL
The Social

Airborne Toxic Event
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Theremin Nipplecat said…
OMG!!!!111!!!!! They've got the coolest hair. I would like to shave all of their heads and make a meatloaf out of it. LOL K BYE!

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