Encompassing all of the most salient aspects of 80s synth pop, with clear nods to Talking Heads and New Order, LA trio ASHRR's debut album is a nostalgic but not particularly convincing first step for the band. The synth rock collective is made up of experienced musicians, with singer Steven Davis, producer Ethan Allen (Black Rebel Motorcycle Club, Sheryl Crow) and producer and piano prodigy Josh Charles all coming together to indulge in their passion for synth-based music.
Allen said that the tracks on Oscillator were inspired by "a shared belief that humanity is falling short of who and what we should be in the world". The album takes a snapshot of modern life with a miasma of disdain, offering unsurprisingly high quality production values that lean into the more polished edges of the band's sound. The songs are expansive and indulgent, but they don't have a lot to say.
Oscillator is at once overstuffed and breathless. "All Yours All Mine" sees Davis' vocals battle for space against trippy synths and a soulful bassline, with the music never getting a chance to expand as non-committal, lazily ambiguous lyrics abound ("We fill our own prescriptions and decide to change our clothes/I think the boat is leaking so let’s have another smoke"). Screeching guitars inexplicably envelope "Sometimes" as a racing industrial sound floods in, as if the direction the song should take was still undecided as it was being recorded.
"Don't Wait Too Long" sounds like the lovechild of Depeche Mode and Joy Division, as whirring synths and a British post-punk aesthetic permeate the track, but it's let down by lyrics that ostensibly hint at something substantial without any real weight ("Don't wait too long/Nobody warns you"). The constituent parts of the songs on Oscillator seem to judder instead of coalesce, where the tracks glide on an expectant sound but fall short of delivering.
At points moments of clarity do push through, with the hook-laden and cinematic "Paper Glass" expertly blending dystopian imagery and powerful vocals with addictively rhythmic synths. Davis sings "We make our own history/We're told our reality" with conviction, as though peering at the world from a lofty vantage point, while the music melds to create a sound that meets somewhere between XTC and Depeche Mode. But moments like this are a rarity on the album.
The album ends on a Bowie-esque ballad called "Here", where ASHRR's sound is stripped back to sparse piano keys and ripples of synths and noodling electric guitar. The song isn't a determined statement of intent, unlike many of the other tracks on Oscillator, and it deftly pulls the listener into an otherworldly trance. It guides the listener in, instead of fervently trying to fill every available space with sound, and it gives a gentle end to an album that persistently tries to demand your attention with mixed results.
Allen said that the album's title "refers to the fact that all people and ideas are vibrating at different frequencies. There are moments when we couple and resonate with similar vibrations, and other times where they rub against each other, creating dissonance. This dissonance can result in conversation, or conflict." It's unclear, then, if the intent was for the album to sound as though it's in conflict with itself. It's teeming with ideas that vie for space across the album's 11 tracks, but these ideas often sound undeveloped and detached from the atmosphere that surrounds them.
5.0 / 10
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