Airplane Mode - 'Slate'

Independent Spotlight is a continuing series on Stewart’s blog. The series revolves around independent artists and bands sending their music to Brett to review. No band is promised a positive review, and all music is reviewed honestly in an effort to better independent music.

In this evening’s edition of the Independent Spotlight, we shine our gaze on Airplane Mode, an outfit hailing from Midland, Texas. Typically performing as either a duo or trio, the group have concocted a dynamic sound chock-full of sonic intricacy and unique soundscapes. Their new record is ‘Slate,’ a ten track outing that’s quite an ambitious endeavor. (Over half the record clocks in well over five minutes per song.) How does the album fare as a result? Let’s find out.

As an indie critic, one thing has been made clear a great many times to me: indie bands have a particularly hard time remaining succinct and consistently interesting when they put out music as long as this. Now, I actually prefer longform composition and songwriting; I’m just making the observation that few indie acts can really pull it off. Most of them just fall into obscurity or pretention. That doesn’t happen to Airplane Mode, mostly due to their erratic nature.

‘P Nasty’s Wild Cake Bonanza’ is exactly as crazy as it sounds. This Thom Yorke-esque jaunt through electronic musings is immensely complex and engaging, thus making it a terrific opener to the record. That atmosphere is immediately altered with ‘Slow,’ however, a tune embracing a more traditional indie rock sound. Atmospheric reverberated vocals combined with rocking instrumentation makes this song endearing and enjoyable. The song occupies a place between garage, indie, and alternative rock.

The defiant highlight of the first half of ‘Slate’ is the superb ‘Joyride.’ This is one hell of a good song. Writing a really good guitar lick is difficult. Incorporating it with an equally compelling song is even more difficult. ‘Joyride’ reminds me of one of the titans of underground indie rock: Jake Bellows. This song really feels like something out of the Neva Dinova frontman’s heyday. The song evolves into a cacophony of beautiful noise.

‘Columbus Day’ is the first real jaunt through extended songwriting on ‘Slate.’ It’s a pretty successful toe in the water, continuing to embrace Airplane Mode’s sharp guitar banter and play. Right as that banter begins to feel a bit overextended, the song essentially morphs into a bass-driven jazzy brass piece. How cool is that?! ‘Columbus Day’ redefines itself one more time before it closes, concreting it as a three-part epic.

‘Far From Home’ is a bit of a drag, indicating a bit of a mid-album lull. That’s mostly due to its recycled nature. The atmospheric droning and guitar riffing feels like an expanded palette of the previously established material on the record. Fortunately, that lull only lasts one song. The romping ‘Summer Song,’ a tune right out of a Vaccines record, re-energizes the experience with an easy-riding song.

Who hasn’t seen Mitch McConnell droning on in a very turtle-like fashion on C-SPAN and become immediately compelled to write a fascinatingly complex instrumental piece spanning nearly seven minutes? No? Well, Airplane Mode has you covered. ‘Mitch McConnell’ is the compositional highlight of the record. Again, even though the band isn’t a jazz piece, they seem to embrace a good deal of jazz tropes and stylings, especially in the percussion and rhythm of this piece. That said, that jazz influence is mashed in with some terrific rock and roll. ‘Mitch McConnell’ is a musically staggering piece as a result of that. Hell, lyrics wouldn’t have done it any justice. It’s perfect the way it is.

Closing out the record, the last three songs are equally as complex and varied as their predecessors. ‘The Sharpest Coat, The Cleanest Tie’ is a wonderful return to the sounds of ‘Joyride’ and ‘Slow.’ I will argue the track overstays its welcome, but it’s a perfectly respectable piece. After that, however, you’re in for an odd segway: R. Kelly.

‘Step in the Name of Love Remix’ is the band’s awkwardly-placed R. Kelly cover on the tail end of ‘Slate.’ At first, I was very, very skeptical of its inclusion. I gotta’ hand it to the group. It’s one hell of a soulful song. Man, they nail it with R&B to be reckoned with. It’s a lighthearted transition into ‘Recovery,’ the nearly nine minute finale. ‘Recovery’ is an interesting piece, if not just due to its layered construction. It’s lacking in creative direction, though, and just drones on and on.

‘Slate’ is an excellent record with a few minor missteps. There’s nothing but fun to be had throughout its run, especially with tunes like ‘Joyride,’ ‘Columbus Day,’ ‘Mitch McConnell,’ and the R. Kelly cover. Go check it out on BandCamp below. It’s $4.99 to download digitally. That’s worth every penny.