With their second album ‘Excess’, Automatic — Izzy Glaudini (synths, lead vocals), Lola Dompé (drums, vocals) and Halle Saxon-Gaines (bass) — synthesizes a new strain of retrofuturist motorik pop.
It’s often said yesterday’s science fiction reads like today’s grim reality. On their new album ‘Excess,’ Automatic channel both. The LA trio’s second album for Stones Throw rides the imaginary edge where the ‘70s underground met the corporate culture of the ‘80s; or, as the band puts it, “That fleeting moment when what was once cool quickly turned and became mainstream all for the sake of consumerism.”
Using this point in time as a lens through which to view the present, Automatic takes aim at corporate culture and extravagance, weaving deadpan critiques into cold wave hooks. The album’s overarching themes of alienation and escapism emerged as Automatic wrote ‘Excess’ together, fleshing out songs before decamping to the studio for sprint recording sessions with producer Joo Joo Ashworth (Sasami, FROTH).
On “New Beginning”, they reject the false hope of leaving behind a scorched planet in search of “a better place”, at a moment when the ultra-rich are eyeing manned space travel: “In the service of desire / We will travel far away”. Imagining the “nihilism and loneliness” of attempting to escape the planet once unchecked consumerism has reached its logical conclusion, the song pictures being “stranded in a space-void with no connection to Earth or humanity.”
The band wanted to do away with the tape hiss and raw edges of their 2019 debut ‘Signal’ in favor of more detailed drums and teething low-end synthesizers; brasher sounds for a brasher time. The theme of “I’m On the Edge” – the precarity of the art life – is mirrored in Lola’’s twitchy drumming and Izzy’s erratic synths. “Venus Hour” is “about whatever it is inside you that makes you want to do that thing that isn’t logical, or safe.” The song grapples with the double-edged sword of desire – the fine line between insatiability and addiction. Izzy originally wrote “Venus Hour” as an ode to “psycho-feminine energy”. The final version moves with the verve of Blondie and classic DEVO, an undercurrent of anxiety crackling beneath a très cool veneer.
The rest of the tracks on the album were born of extended jam sessions. Halle notes that ‘Excess’ didn’t come as easily as their debut, and that finishing it took resilience and encouragement from all three members, feeding into each other’s ideas and trying new techniques in the studio. One such track, “Teen Beat”, is named for a preset on Halle’s old-school analog drum machine. It bristles with youthful, near-manic energy, with lyrics about the inevitable climate crisis: “Your feet in the water / The fear coming for you.”
“To us, the name came to be about Gen Z inheriting the world at the eleventh hour, before they’re even old enough to drink,” says Halle. “Before we landed on ‘Teen Beat,’ we affectionately called it ‘Madness’ — the madness you feel with the state of polarization today.”
Automatic imagines a Patrick Bateman type in “Skyscraper” — the kind of sociopath who excels in C-suites and complains about affordable housing going up in his neighborhood. “It’s spending your life making money and then spending it to fill the void created by said job,” says Halle. “Kind of like going to LA to live your dreams,” says Lola. “NRG,” written in a cathartic fritz after listening to Crass and named in honor of disco pioneer Patrick Cowley, grapples with “the unknowingness that comes with testing boundaries and exploring one’s own values while finding your place in the world as an individual,” says Lola. On “NRG”, the trio grapples with their own position — as a band, as a “brand,” as women in the music industry, and how their relationship to their own labor has changed as they chart a course forward into uncharted territory. After all, they’ve got to keep going, and so do you.
But Excess’ final message is one of solidarity, rather than despair. “I can’t stand to hear you talk this way / Like every new beginning ends the same,” opens “Turn Away,” the last song of the album, hearkening back to the visions of failed space excursions. It’s “meant to feel like an arm over your shoulder in a loving gesture.” Instead of succumbing to fatalism, Automatic chooses hope: “There’s a light in the dark / Feel the world open up.” “We want people to feel empowered to do what they can to save the world, to reject any complacency of watching the world burn,” Halle says.
‘Excess’ is a definitive arrival moment for Automatic, who meld the blissful bounce of Tom Tom Club with the techno-futurist inclinations of Kraftwerk, and deliver it all with the listlessness of modern young adulthood. Even the mirrored bodice on the cover reflects the current day: distorted and chaotic with a sleek sheen. As Izzy says, “The record is about what happens to our psyches when we’re conditioned to certain values — the consequences of those values, and the desire to resist them.” Automatic captures the tense energy of our current moment, where questions are plentiful, but answers are scarce.