Bullet Height – No Atonement – music review

Bullet Height – No Atonement – music review

Bullet Height’s dark and moody debut album, No Atonement, is one of the most exciting albums in the industrial and synth rock art world. With sounds that stretch back to the 80’s and modern electro-pop influences, the album emerges as a dark industrial vision of relationships and society filtered through epic synths and goth vibes that capture a sort of twisted heartbeat. Sammi Doll is one of the keyboardists for IAMX, one of the best industrial bands now or ever, and this album emerges as her introspective vision alongside Jon Courtney, who is also in the important band Pure Reason Revolution.

The two have common damaging experiences that are fused together into a dark and hazy canvas that is basically synth rock but plays as unusually poetic and experimental with deep industrial roots of electronic discord alongside airy new wave rock and roll. The rhythms are well structured, and Bullet Height songs have a lovely echo of need, disappointment, innocence, hopefulness, and damage. In typical goth fashion, the album poses a contrast between dark and light, willing to bury itself in darker impulses, moods, and feelings than most musicians will explore but still offering a hopeful bright edge, especially with the synths. The keyboard playing on the album is nothing short of beautiful.

Sammi Doll with IAMX
Sammi Doll performing with IAMX

Sammi plays keys in the live version of IAMX usually behind Janine Gezang in the lead, but her own playing with Jon Courtney on No Atonement is powerful and evocative with deep layers of dark and sad emotion mixed with beautiful glimpses of 80’s dance fun. She is deeply inspired by the great synth rock band Metric and its great keyboardist and songwriter Emily Haines. While her own project is less rock based than them, it does offer industrial style rock influences filtered through new wave and synth pop into a beautiful and strangely contorted creation. The odd rhythms and twisted emotions conjure up two people twisted together like a cubist painting where the inside has become the outside, but the darkness has a lot in common with German expressionism, an influence that possibly seeped into Bullet Height from the album being sourced in disconnected experiences within a dark but artsy and extremely modern German city.

The band started in Berlin, where Sammi Doll lived for a few years and became involved in the German art scene. Berlin is an important international destination for the arts, because the city emerged in the postwar environment as a central place for postmodernity, and it had an extremely unique position between East and West during the Cold War. It experienced being divided in half, being a place of cultural achievement, being war torn and rebuilt, and being international all at once. When I say rebuilt, Berlin is one of the newest cities in the world, because so much had to be completely recreated after World War II. At the same time, it has very long and influential artistic traditions going back centuries. That odd sense of place seems to leave a mark on the album with its disjointed sense of aspiration and emptiness. No Atonement is an album that almost exists in an abstract world of not having a place of its own, of being transient and disjointed just like its creators felt in an estranged city. Sammi finally left Berlin amidst depression and went back to Los Angeles, where Bullet Height has been developing since.

Sammi Doll of Bullet Height

Sammi and Jon have then fused together experiences of difficult relationships and drug addiction into the songs to where they are hard to uncoil. Both leave scars, but both also can be a thing to learn from, opening up new possibilities as one moves beyond them. The two musicians work these themes together so that in many cases a song or a line could be about either one, as Sammi said, or about both even when one seems to be more obvious. The very poetic line, “You pull the skin apart and haul me into your consciousness,” is a fine example. Drugs can literally enter the skin and alter consciousness, but the experience of another person can do this as well. Both leave scars, but people learn in advancing past them, and Bullet Height portrays that experience well.

The relationship to industrial music is interesting to explore here. Sammi knows these sounds very well from IAMX and is a goth musician with a clear gift for synth playing, but this does not limit the band to only industrial territory. Instead the songs are very moody and extremely airy. They don’t bury the listener with a cacophony of dense sound but instead allow the beauty of the synths to echo and resonate emotional perspectives. Much like the excellent electronic project Night Club, Bullet Height shows clear influences from industrial music and is a part of it but also can’t be pinned down to it as other electronic sounds make their way in with broader synth-pop and new wave influences. In particular, Depeche Mode casts a very pleasant shadow over the album with its deep dark themes but bright electronics and danceable beats that often show isolation, yearning, and twisted pleasure.

A Fractured Self

Psychologically it is one of the most sophisticated albums, and this is the most important focal point besides the synth playing. Both musicians are quite introspective, but they manage to reach far beyond themselves and find universal meanings that help us to see what makes people tick and to help us find things within ourselves. This especially takes the shape of haunting melodies that seem to echo from deep inside. Lines such as, “You’re the cadence into my world,” from the moving song Cadence, which sounds at once like an opening up and a defensiveness being portrayed, serve to amplify this.  We see that we are composed of a number of things outside of ourselves that take on meaning deep within to form internal parts of us, including other people, feelings, perspectives, and musical beats we internalize into pulsating waves of thought as we go about our lives. The electronic sounds on Bullet Height’s album hold a mirror to the respective breakdowns of their composers and become a mechanism of transcendence. Much like VNV Nation, dark becomes a base for the building of light, and we reach past ourselves as we see into two people’s inner dimensions and aspirations.

Sammi Doll of Bullet Height

The birthplace of Berlin for the album is appropriate in larger German artistic traditions. The fracturing of Berlin has been a recurrent artistic theme for decades along with its bitter history of destruction and misconceived aspirations during the second world war. Expressionism in Germany sought to create a shadowy projection of internal psychology and in some ways became a darker and more psychological twist on romanticism that is an important backdrop to gothic art. It ended up falling to more externally oriented approaches to art such as Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s films with his social misfits and jagged characters trying to find a place in a disjointed world populated by inherent ruptures, a broken world that also resembles some of what No Atonement portrays. For Bullet Height, both musicians were outsiders in the city when they wrote the album, and the struggle of this created a very accomplished and authentic work of art.

All of these tendencies have a corollary in gothic art, and Sammi and Jon seem to be using their two personas to show someone twisted in half with the inside shown as the outside. The psychology of both people in the album is a deeply fractured one, and the most important artistic accomplishment seems to me to be the ability to take that fracturing and find beauty in exactly that, giving layers of deep expression to the experience rather than hiding from it. Many people are fractured for a multitude of reasons, but it is rare to find psychologically rich portrayals of that. The need to focus a song or other project makes fractures very hard to convey, but the emotional depths seem to be endless for Bullet Height. The result is genuine insight into a central part of human experience through a beautiful sonic portrayal of being inside a person’s broken self. At the same time, this depiction of feelings and moods relates back to the world and recognizes the way it shapes people.

Sammi Doll of Bullet Height

The song Bastion also has clear social elements added to the psychological themes, but it still is about darker personal experiences. “Will the kingdom come, when our bodies turn into earth,” expresses a deep finitude in relationships and in the self that is partly built within social expectations and angst of thinking the world should work better than it does after hearing so much continual rhetoric of living in a bastion of freedom and prosperity. In spite of being told how free we all are, things don’t look so great as the surrounding world often impinges on us with hostility, whether through economic, cultural, political, or other facades. Indeed, within the preposterous efforts of the West to claim political and economic perfection, the German language is fascinating for the way its parts all fit together so mechanically. Major thinkers like Nietzsche and Heidegger are able to make great philosophical and linguistic use of the complicated categories German affords, but this also means that German society has a difficult time dealing with things it cannot categorize, with outsiders. So Berlin is a hard place to be a transplanted outsider within, even when other people try to have good intentions. “Now can you hold me close, or is the soul too beaten,” also from Bastion, then captures a sad resolve about wanting to find love in a world of broken bitterness. Similarly, “At least I’m only used not dead,” from the beautiful Break Our Hearts Down, shows a hope for something better amidst disappointment but also shows that the experience of being so ruptured shapes the surviving person in a profound way. We become our own broken works of art by owning the experience.

The presence of goth and industrial music as a major underground artistic world is in line with the central qualities of European existentialism with its emphasis on finitude, postmodernity with its fractured and pessimistic views of humanity, and the collapse of romanticism, all themes that I aim to explore with these articles. Many large scale western human aspirations have simply not worked the way they were supposed to, and this style of art captures that with great depth. Bullet Height have extended personal themes and experiences into larger meanings that capture that well, and it is a great accomplishment. Large scale forces in the world are shaped into sensitive feelings and internal perceptions that leave the band expressing mechanisms inside all of us that are scars of a surrounding world with fading hope but still great potential, but what makes the album great is the way it captures nuance. Like the cinema of Ingmar Bergman, small things are effectively amplified and given deeper shades of meaning. We see how small interactions can unveil a person’s world and take on a whole psychology or mode of existence. The album is a beautiful dark wave accomplishment at looking inwardly with electronic pulses of searing keyboards to see how we work and how our broken experiences leave scars and inspiration. Sadly, Jon Courney is no longer active with the project. Bullet Height lives on though with Sammi Doll leading the project in Los Angeles. It will be exciting to see where that takes it.

Sammi Doll of Bullet Height

Originally published 9/28/18; updated 5/6/19

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