Tag: synth rock

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

Metric – Art of Doubt – music review

Metric – Art of Doubt – music review

Metric has some of the best use of electronic synthesizers that has ever graced music. Emily Haines is a master at the keyboards, and her sounds can only be described as other worldly. Along with her guitarist, James Shaw, she is also a master songwriter. Metric songs are impossibly singable while having a lot to say about human existence and our place in the world, and if that isn’t enough, Emily has a beautiful voice and is a gripping singer and performer. The band has revived new wave sounds into highly original compositions that are entirely danceable but also able to capture a traditional rock aesthetic, especially with the excellent guitar work that James contributes to the band. Metric creates a genuine feeling that the roots of rock and roll are being catapulted to some dark and strange future of powerful electronic pulses and glimpses of visionary insights we don’t usually realize or see.

Emily Haines with Metric
Emily Haines with Metric at Fillmore Auditorium, Denver, 3/20/19

As a live band, they are deeply transcendent. At the Fillmore Auditorium on March 20, the band was as mind expanding as being on board a spaceship, and it was impossible not to move and sing while Emily danced across the stage. Metric songs are a celebration of life. So having someone who loves to dance to her own songs comes across less as entertainment than as profound clubbing and the kind of release that happens when completely lost in waves of sound, as though they are carrying one’s existence to a different place. James is an accomplished guitarist with beautiful classic rock styling that seems to capture rock tradition against Emily’s ethereal, groovy, and haunting keyboards. Her use of synths creates such a powerful electronic layer for the band that it almost feels like having your brain rewired by electronics. 

Emily Haines

That experience is one of the more powerful things that can happen with the best electronic music styles such as industrial, dubstep, and house when they are done intelligently and less commercially, but like industrial music, Metric manage to combine electronics with rock into a natural harmony. They lack the breakages and the sampling that characterizes industrial music in favor of synth driven beauty and light with strong hooks propelling their songs into very unified depictions of life on each album. The result is a synth rock band that succeeds at recreating new wave music in a very original way. Up front with this band at the Fillmore Auditorium in Denver was one of the friendliest experiences I’ve had at a show. The off mic comments from Emily were charming, and standing in front of James’ guitar for much of the night was a pleasure of traditional guitar sounds from a positive personality who is very much in tune with his instrument and the whole canvas of what guitar sounds are capable of doing, both traditionally and alongside newer electronic canvases. It’s hard to find a band that is so positive and innovative while at the same time capturing beautifully dark aesthetics about a pessimistic world all within deeply authentic rock tradition.

Emily Haines with Metric

Emily Haines’ skill on synths is a revelation, and the songs are profound as well as catchy. They’re as fun to sing with as Ronan Harris’ imminently singable songs with VNV Nation, because the lyrics actually say meaningful things at the same time as being catapulted by beautiful keyboards, strong messages, and elevated ethereal moments. Metric is doing something that is a bit similar to VNV by using their songs to show an experience of light amidst darkness, but they are far more a part of rock tradition and less tied to goth subculture.

James Shaw
James Shaw

The lighting setup that Metric used on their stage was absolutely beautiful with glowing lights of different colors and shades cast around the stage and performers. The lights captured the intent of the songs perfectly and painted the stage with illumination that seemed to exactly correspond with Emily’s keyboards. The central staging she gives to her keyboards just in front of the drums makes them look like a shrine to synthesizers or part of an electronic church that was built inside of a spaceship. When she heads over to play them attention shifts from her vocals to the keys, and every touch is so magical that the room practically spins as strangely beautiful sounds come out in a transcendent broken harmony that has an odd way of seeming like it continually progresses to still more peaks as one note glides gently but forcefully into the next. 

Emily Haines with Metric

The keyboardists who stand out to me the most besides Emily and classic figures are Nero of Psyclon Nine and Jeremy Dawson of MXMS and Shiny Toy Guns, which admittedly has a lot to do with my love for industrial music, but I enjoy the strange innovation and experimental impulse with edges of beauty that these musicians bring to electronic instrumentation. Emily’s playing is deeply soulful and rhythmic. It’s also spacey and does the best I have ever heard of making synthesizers sound like pure light. Her harmonies are beautiful, and the deeper sounds she produces capture odd and moving vibrations that work their way even deeper into a person’s awareness by being contrasted with her higher notes that seem to float above the horizon of the other instruments. The whole mixture seems to fall somewhere outside of normal perception, as though her keyboards are somehow above everyday awareness, a sort of dark psychedelia without any drugs.

Metric
Metric

Into this powerful mixture comes Art of Doubt, a very beautiful and accomplished album. The only hard part about making the case for it is that the earlier Metric albums are also incredibly accomplished. However, this particular album has a beautiful way of capturing darkness, angst, and absence that makes it a standout, and that does make it seem like a beautiful advance on 2015’s Pagans in Vegas. Die Happy has gotten a lot of attention from the band on tour with its powerful line of, “Is this dystopia?” being emboldened on the drumhead as a backdrop for Emily’s imposing and oddly geometric keyboard setup. It is a profound question to ask right now, and part of the beauty of Metric’s songwriting is that they are deeply existential even with all the danceable beauty of their songs. Asking whether we live in a dystopia in 2019 is a very serious question that can plausibly be answered with a yes for a variety of disturbing social and political reasons having to do with corruption, the concentration of power and resources into the wealthy which is bolstered by increasingly low wage jobs, and the rise of fascist tendencies in western politics. Besides those concerns, war fighting and technology being used to surveil, exploit, and oppress people are major worries. Amidst all of that though, continual exposure to electronic screens and trickery from social media and other places leaves people more encouraged to be superficial and false than ever. Then if all that’s not bad enough, the environment is also nearing massive collapse.

Emily Haines

It is very reasonable to say that dystopia is literally the present then, but Emily’s response is a wonderful embrace of life and not giving a fuck. Metric songs strongly encourage people to go and live, because negativity is built into the world and is best handled by doing the best one is capable of and embracing life regardless of surroundings or circumstance. The act of living life itself in accord with one’s better nature is what breaks through negativity in these songs. Like many of the very best musicians, Emily’s songs find better things within the potential of humanity than to be exploited masses, and following the grace of one’s own spirit and refusing to give up or to do nothing help to overcome dystopia. At the same time, Emily and her cowriter James have an awareness of how limited and negative the world is, and dystopia would seem to be a real thing to this band.

Emily Haines with Metric

Dark Saturday opens the album nicely with a song about living to overcome darkness. “Forever and ever, a night in search of the day,” describes looking for brighter things while living as an outsider and reveling in the fun of nocturnal life. Love You Back is a soulful song with very penetrating rhythms and Emily’s voice singing in a quiet and high register. “I wanna love you back so bad,” portrays desire and closeness amidst hesitation and disappointment. The song is existential, because Emily doesn’t sound trusting after previous disappointments. So the pleasure of connecting is placed around the brokenness of existence and fractured life as she sings, “I’ve been held in place with wire and lace and waltzed around the drain.” So the song sounds both dark and exuberant, a fun waltz of pleasure and disappointment at once brought into harmony.

James Shaw with Metric

Now or Never Now is about living in darkness as well. The beautifully sung refrain of, “It’s now or never,” accompanied by soft sounding keys emphasizes the need to take life and not wait, ignoring how broken everything might be to simply live the way people are meant to. “The last time you let yourself feel this way, it was a long long time ago,” suggests both loss and fright. Art of Doubt as the title track then captures the album and Emily’s beliefs very well. It’s a kind of existential skepticism over the certainty of life and other people through which she recognizes the need to create and live nonetheless as the only way to fix anything. Whatever happens around us, we exist, and we should control our own lives and do things with them. By doing so, we realize that what happens around us doesn’t even matter very much, because within every person, there is much more for people who are brave or inspired enough to embrace creation and life.

Emily Haines with Metric

The entire album is strongly split between both existential ideas and transcendent ones. Underline the Black has the memorable line of, “They’re still waiting for their lives to start.” It’s a line that seems meant to get a reaction from the audience, making a difference to all of us through conveying inspiration and a deep understanding of existence. Many people do effectively devote their lives to petty things and thus never really live. For a highly existential band like Metric, dying while doing something great and trying to succeed is not such a bad thing while not being yourself is a horror. Life is about living and doing, and that ultimate life affirmation drives much of the album. The brand of existentialism that it has a lot in common with is Jean-Paul Sartre, with his claim that humanity is ultimately free, that we are obligated to control our fates and recognize that existence is inherently a horror no matter where one is. The only way to overcome that horror is to live and to do things, taking ownership of one’s narrative.

Emily Haines with Metric

Dressed to Suppress takes the superficiality of looking good to overcome negativity and turns it into making yourself who you want to be. Sorrow exists and is part of life, but making oneself into something above it can go from appearance to reality if we go out and live and create ourselves into who we choose to be, as though existence itself is an X waiting to be filled in by what we choose to do for ourselves, by what thrills, moves, and engages us to act. It has some of Emily’s best and most interesting singing with fast emphasis on her lines. Risk is another existential song about the risk of connecting with someone. Every line of the song is memorable and beautifully sung, and it’s one of the most fun songs to sing along to. “Can I send this kiss back to you now, ‘cause the risk belongs with you somehow? Can I return this kiss that you gave? Already know it’s borrowed anyway. Was the risk I sent to you received?,” Emily sings skeptically. She later tells us, “There’s another way to leave the garden of eden,” which seems to be a reference both to falling and also to innocence.

Emily Haines with Metric

Seven Rules is about finding safety with someone else and is slow and beautiful, making a transition into quiet melody after the album has done an excellent job of preparing us with so many sweeping keyboard passages. After the skepticism of relationships on the previous song, this one celebrates being safe with someone, and it is lovely for its dryness and lack of excessive emotional drama. It lets the song remain existential and authentic, an examination of connection rather than a superficial ballad. Holding Out by contrast is about waiting when we should be doing things. Waiting for tomorrow or better situations effectively wastes the limited lives we have. So the time to live is always now. Anticipate takes Emily’s ability to make her keyboards sound like a UFO and amplifies it to absolutely strange sounds that are beautiful in a haunting way with a remarkably dark echo under her heavier choice of keys. No Lights on the Horizon is an especially deep song with its sensitive line of, “If it wasn’t for your kindness lately, I’d never get out of bed.” Then Emily makes what seems to be a statement about the human condition with, “It’s true. I’m flawed. I’ve made every mistake.” That is part of living and having awareness rather than regret, and the song is a very dark close for the album that clearly emphasizes the pervasive darkness and romantic nihilism that has been carried over from goth rock.

Metric

The entire album is a powerful statement and musical journey, and it is even more interesting against Pagans in Vegas with the two albums showing two complementary sides of synth rock. The synthesizers in Emily’s hands have a moving capability of conveying deep, soulful, and ethereal sounds with gliding and subtle shifts between notes that allow for every other instrument to achieve new forms of expression. Pink Floyd is a nice touching point for me in seeing how they fit against rock history for creating such an innovative sense of going on a journey through music and discovering a new palette of possibilities. The production on the album is especially beautiful and well balanced with nuances of sound laid throughout such that the smallest of vibrations is clearly audible. It’s a relief compared to the endless stream of overly compressed albums that are made to play on junky 21st century earbuds with no dynamic range. The album cover also fits the strongly existentialist nature of Art of Doubt. The empty circle looks like the Zen use of the enso symbol. In Zen it is used to show emptiness, but most especially the emptiness of the self, and Emily is laying bare the human soul as an open place waiting to be given meaning and to make its own existence.

Emily Haines with Metric

The songs were especially beautiful live, and the album seems like a Zen celebration of nothingness begetting life. This was even more profound with seeing Metric play these songs against older ones like the great Sick Muse from Fantasies. “Everybody just wanna fall in love; everybody just wanna play the lead,” captures Emily, the band, and the reverie of the audience all very well, with conflict and beauty clashing to become a new transcendental melody. After one realizes how much nonsense everything around us is, living and enjoying absurdity by going out and doing things is a fun response to embrace. Gimme Sympathy and Gold Guns Girls also made the point of their music very well at the concert. Songs from the masterpiece, Synthetica, also figured prominently in the set, with a very moving performance of Breathing Underwater standing out as showing that the band’s celebration of life comes with a strong acceptance of struggle. It is no doubt one of the best bands in the world to see perform and one of the most beautiful, authentic, and inspiring shows.

Emily Haines with Metric

They are overall the best and most original synthesizer based rock band one can see. The skill Emily Haines brings to her synths reminds me of true instrumental greats such as Charlie Parker with his saxophone. James Shaw adds wonderful classical styling through the intricate riffs from his guitar, and this lets the band coexist as an innovative project with moving electronic sounds and a landscape that deeply draws on and advances ideas from classic rock. It’s telling that they toured with the no less than the Rolling Stones and worked with Lou Reed in the past while also recreating new wave sounds, using obvious goth rock influences on Art of Doubt, and turning electronic music on its head by having more sophisticated synth playing than anyone else accompanied by strong and real rock and roll. Metric is a great band to reckon with, and if attention to rock is still sincere in the 21st century, it’s one of the biggest and most perfect adjustments of rock aesthetics since Pink Floyd showed that rock could be a darkly psychedelic journey into weirder places than most people can ever anticipate.

Emily Haines with Metric

They are also a very cohesive unit of musicians. While Emily Haines gets most of the fame, James is important as a songwriter and a moving guitarist to be in front of live, while the drummer and bassist are long time members with excellent skillful playing, evoking beautiful rhythms that catapult much of the songs. The rhythm has an especially important role with Emily’s keys and James’ guitar both alternating as the lead, and they play beautifully in synch in a way that bands with changing lineups are challenged to deliver. People who are this expert at their craft add a fun layer to a show beyond the excellence of the songs, and the last time I was so moved by the pure beauty of musicians playing so well together was at a concert for The Cure some years ago. That genuine excitement is a pleasure to see when a band plays, and in Metric’s hands, electronic music clearly does its best when it stays with rock as so many industrial bands have also indicated. Synth rock is clearly offering a bold statement to reckon with through Metric, a slightly different direction where much more classic style and songwriting is intricately updated to mesh against strangely beautiful electronic sounds that add more depth than keyboard can normally accomplish in human hands.

Emily Haines with Metric