For all the good it’s done, there’s still plenty of skepticism out there for technological advancement. Consider, for instance, how society once questioned the intentions of the camera eye, suspecting that the closing of the shutter would steal our souls. Even now, despite thousands of albums being available at our fingertips via streaming services, there’s an entire sect of music buyers out there who refuse to believe in anything but the analogue crackle of vinyl. Because it’s “pure.” Even more disconcerting is the sad, bitter fact that the older we get, the less likely it is we’re going to understand our various app updates.
The fine arts have been leery of this all along. Orwell’s dystopian Big Brother nightmare rings prescient every time we concede to an Apple agreement in which we’re fully aware we can be tracked down with our phones’ internal GPS. Hell, your finder is already keeping tabs on you via every tagged Instagram post.
Long ago, post-modern pop band Kraftwerk dryly mocked us by noting that WE are the robots. At this point, with our smartphone-nuzzling tendencies, it’s hard to argue. On the flip, we’ve also accepted the benefits of tuning in. What once seemed weird is kinda normal these days. But how does this tie in to Vancouver two-piece Combine the Victorious’ new Autonomous LP?
Being critical of computer life is central to tracks like “Real Life Turns Me On.” It begins with a mechanical, four-on-the-floor pound and a cyborg’s refrain of: “Robotic, Hypnotic, Symphonic, Tectonic, Ironic, Synchronic, Exotic, Pneumonic, Quixotic, Erotic, Platonic, Electronic, Robotic.” Beyond sounding as if HAL was rooting through its internal hard drive’s rhyming dictionary, that repeated “robotic” speaks volumes for Combine the Victorious’ approach to the issue. Its plea to unplug and enjoy the natural world is heavy-handed. Even worse, it’s much less fun to absorb than, say, Daft Punk’s similarly absurd and circuit-fried “Harder Better Faster.”
Oddly, despite songs like this or “Recharge” looking for a way out of techno-malaise, much of the record is delivered through a retro-futurist perspective, sounding like an electronica-appreciating record from the 28k modem days. “Stand in Front of Tanks” offers up the kinds of dank and decrepit synth arpeggios you’d expect from a daemonic, dungeon-set blood rave, while also appealing to fans of “Head Like a Hole”-era Nine Inch Nails. But “Encryption,” a strong instrumental, plays the darkwave card quite successfully.
Interestingly, it’s the slightly more organic moments on the record that flatline. “Caught Up to You” lands with a hard-edged synth tone, but most harsh about the track is the flagrantly giddy, lite-funk guitar. Maddeningly, it’s a plinking curiosity Autonomous employs quite often.
Elsewhere, “California 15” pushes forth gloomily, with its narrative finding Mark R Henning and Isabelle Dunlop taking a decidedly jaundiced opinion of L.A., a place they once found quite golden. “What the hell happened to you,” they ask.
Equally moody is minor key ballad “Stop Giving Up On Love,” though both the tune’s emotion-embracing lyrics and sonic likeness to Duran Duran’s “Come Undone” lift Autonomous’ spirits high.
There’s a hope on closing number “It’s Still On” to find “a better place.” Some are speculating that Generation Z are already getting there by going off-the-grid and unsubscribing from Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and other slightly ossifying social media services. Real life, it would seem, is turning them on. That should be good news for Combine the Victorious, though one could argue that all that unplugging will affect the reach of their electronic music too.
Review by Gregory Adams