A catharsis-riddled heart-swell of emotional, epic rock and arty pop, the debut LP by the Airborne Toxic Event does indeed sound like that — an event. The band weds a swaggering brand of nerve-stripped and jangled post-punk/new-wave grandeur to frontman Mikel Jollett’s lyrical snapshots of heartache and loss. Panoramic and ambitious, it’s an audacious first album, magnifying personal traumas — in one week Jollett’s mother was diagnosed with cancer, he with an autoimmune disease, and he and his longtime girlfriend split — into alternately witty dance-rock and grandiose, wide-screen blasts of guitar-churned despair and hope.
Opening with the pounding carnival shimmer of “Wishing Well,” the album begins slowly, gently unfurling from a twilight ballad and into a midnight howl of arcing keys and anthemic guitars from which the LP doesn’t relent for forty pop-swooned, explosive minutes. From the serrated gnash of the listless heartbreak of “Papillon” to the weary shock and wiry dance grooves of “Does This Mean You’re Moving On?” to the almost animal desperation for a soulmate in the sweet pop smile of “Missy,” the Airborne Toxic Event is one headlong howl of an album in a frantic search for transcendence.
The band achieves that transcendence most successfully on two songs: the majestic “Sometime Around Midnight” and the naked, hearts-on-their-sleeves ripcord closer, “Innocence.” “Midnight” finds the song’s protagonist in a drunken shatter as he watches the woman he loves leave a club with another man, as the band “plays some song about forgetting yourself for awhile,” during which Airborne generates a string-swept flood of cascading rhythms and feral vocals, coupled with a searing, knowing empathy, that makes the moment indelible. Just as “Midnight” begins with a viola-streaked bloom of quiet splendor, so too does “Innocence,” as Jollett recalls the dark week he lost his and the band launches into a pulsing rage of roiling post-punk. Both tracks fuse anguish to an unyielding, rebellious wall of noise that refuses to succumb to resignation in the face of encroaching darkness.
The Airborne Toxic Event’s gift is two-fold — they manage to take the little things, the day-to-day ellipses of modern romance and elevate them to a level of art (or, as Don DeLillo put it in White Noise, the novel that gave the band its name, they find the “radiance in dailiness”). So bright is the light they shine on these tiny moments that the shadows they cast take on epic, tragic dimensions. Further, they bind that art into a leg-blurring swirl of dancing, defiant rock ‘n’ roll in the face of loss and death. And, in spite of those twinned thunderclouds, they play on anyway, forgetting themselves for a while and making a beautiful ruckus on into the night.