Sonic diversity within the confines of genre is rare enough, but when one encounters a band like I are Droid, it’s a fitting reminder that those who actually cross boundaries after acknowledging them are in much scarcer supply. I are Droid‘s second album for Razzia Records, The Winter Ward — their first outing was 2008′s cleverly-titled I are Debut – is such a release, culling together elements of modern alternative and classic heavy rock and marrying them with a vast array of sonic textures in the form of synth and programming. To give some basic idea of how that works, one might look at a song like “Kill it Good,” fourth on the album and among its most infectious tracks. On the surface, you have the trio of guitarist/vocalist Peder Bergstrand (once and again of Lowrider), bassist/backing vocalist Jens Lagergren and drummer Fredrik Okazaki Bergström, who proffer excellently composed and performed, driving rock and roll, but under that and running along with it there are layers of synth worked in and midi that comes courtesy of Bergstrand and producer/mixer Daniel Bergstrand. Not only do these electronic elements become essential to the overall listening experience of The Winter Ward, providing a bed for the strong hooks of “22:22,” “Feathers and Dust,” “Constrict/Contract” and “Kill it Good,” among others on the 11-track/46-minute offering, but they create an immersive depth in the mix that puts the audience in a different headspace while hearing the album almost without realizing it. They’re the world in which the songs happen, but they’re also part of the songs themselves, and it’s not necessarily appropriate to think of them as separate — the builds in “Feathers and Dust” and “22:22″ can attest to that, as the synth not only matches the forward motion of the other instruments, but is another, essential piece of the whole. Shades of Bergstrand‘s desert guitar tonality and fuzz show up in cuts like “Leaving Ground” (the longest on the album at 6:26) and the particularly Queens of the Stone Age-esque guitar progression in the verse of “Given is Given,” but even this is shifted and directed to suit I are Droid‘s more complex, more nuanced purposes. The real triumph of the record is that it’s pop.
It would be fascinating enough for I are Droid to put together a collection of songs using these methods and have it be a fucking mess, unstructured and dense with self-indulgence, but that’s not how The Winter Ward plays out. These songs have hooks of nearly unbearable potency, and at the heart of all this stylistic breadth there resides an adherence to classic, immediately familiar verse/chorus construction that makes a cut like the percussion-centric “Odes” as accomplished in terms of basic songwriting as it is aesthetically. Couple that with crisp production — Daniel Bergstrand‘s name might be familiar from his recording/mixing work for Meshuggah, In Flames, Behemoth, Devin Townsend, and so many others; the drum sounds here is a sure tell of metal roots, whatever context surrounds — intricate, headphone-worthy mixing and Peder‘s dynamic vocal sensibilities and The Winter Ward becomes even more accessible, the lyrics of opener “Then, at 15″ setting a wistful, reflective tone for the rest to follow that stays general enough to be universally relatable. This mood perfectly suits Peder‘s voice, which arrives melodic over an initial salvo of synth tings before the chugging guitar/bass and deceptively weighted drum thud begins and “Then, at 15″ starts both its hurried push and lyrical coming of age narrative. For as long as there’s been popular music, that’s been a theme of it, but I are Droid use the opener effectively as a point from which to expand — the subsequent “With Lowered Arms” and “Given is Given (Part I)” both drawing on some of the same sweet melancholy while broadening the palette overall, the second track maximizing an open, airy feel while “Given is Given (Part I)” grounds the overarching flow with an encompassing melody in the vocals and guitar, which dominates accompanied by Lagergren‘s bass. The methodology holds for the next couple tracks, as “Given is Given (Part I)” feeds into the ultra-catchy “Kill it Good” and “Feathers and Dust,” each of which efficiently toys with the balance of rock and electronic progressivism, pushing to one side or the other for any given verse or chorus, a double-edged hook emerging in “Kill it Good” that stands as one of The Winter Ward‘s strongest, though certainly there’s no shortage of competition.