cover art for Airborne Toxic

The Airborne Toxic Event; All at Once

By R. Alan Clanton | published Sunday, November 17, 2013 |
Thursday Review Editor

The first thing that drives the hook into your skin with All At Once, the new album by The Airborne Toxic Event, is the slowly-swelling opening title anthem, a song in which razor-like vocals and the steady ramping up of guitars, bass and percussion build like an orchestra on fire. Ten more tunes follow this same path with a dazzling result: this may be among the best ten new albums released in 2013.

All At Once is only the second album from this Los Angeles area group, but the music speaks of a much more mature, balanced sound than most indie/alternative bands produce on their follow-up. This isn’t to suggest that the music is overly-produced or slick (nor that they have gone mainstream), only that this band’s voiceprint is solid, versatile and full of genuine talent—the sort of combination that sometimes births overused terms like “instant classic” to describe a collection of songs.

Released in April of this year on Island Records, All At Once contains no duds, no weak spots, no throwaway tunes. Every one of its 11 songs are strong, and many deeply infectious, most notably “Numb” and “Changing,” the second and third cuts on the album, respectively. The cohesion between lead vocalist Mikel Jollett and backing vocalist Anna Bulbrook is at its best on many of these songs, and Jollett’s guitar work meshes seamlessly with that of guitarist Steven Chen to create a pleasurable wall of alt rock sound. Another highlight of the album is “It Doesn’t Mean a Thing,” which again showcases the band’s musical integration as well as the masterful work of producer and mixer, D. Sardy, and the one song which most closely resembles pure rock with its insistent percussion and punchy, rollicking bass line.

Of particular note are the lyrics, which frequently anchor themselves thematically to issues of age, fear, death and questions of purpose, but which have been effectively shorn of the usual bleakness one associates with typical designer narcissism and youthful gloom-for-the-sake-of-gloom. The lyrics feel more poetic and even, at times, oddly spiritual. The band’s name, for those who enjoy literary allusions, derives from the Don Delillo novel White Noise, in which thousands must flee as a result of a train wreck in which toxic materials are released. Pretentious, perhaps for most bands, except that Jollett and Chen were both writers before their migration into rock music in 2009. Think of what would happen if you locked Bruce Springsteen, The Clash and the poets Charles Bukowski and Rainer Mara Rilke in the same room.

Song ten, “All I Ever Wanted,” is especially powerful for its complex layering of violins, strings and keyboards—a masterful and intense set of sounds, especially when contrasted with the album’s last song, “The Graveyard Near the House,” a mostly acoustic poem packed with gentle worries of mortality, swelling passion, fading love, and loss of innocence. This introspective and tenderly sad song makes a great coda for the general weightiness of the album, and effectively binds together the themes explored in all the other songs.

All-in-all, this album is a great addition to your music collection, especially for the combo-medley “The Kids Are Ready to Die” and “Welcome to Your Wedding Day,” which, despite their dark, potent lyrics, makes this one of the year’s best studio recordings.