Album review: The Airborne Toxic Event’s ‘All at Once’

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It’s hard not to get swept up in the boundless ambition of “All at Once,” the sophomore effort from the Airborne Toxic Event. The local band rose to national prominence on the heels of its self-titled indie debut, which aspired to be significant; now signed to major label Island/Universal, Airborne ups the ante even more. This is the sound of a band willing itself into stadiums and Grammy nominations, every song an anthemic melodrama hinging on the crux between life and death.

Playing so hard to the cheap seats is a risk — at times the group veers dangerously close to cliché. The craft of Airborne’s frontman Mikel Jollett ultimately proves undeniable, however: the twinkling synths, crowd-participation-ready hand claps and catchy syncopated verses on the Modest Mouse-influenced “Changing” suck you in even before it reaches the chorus.

The opening title track proves the key to the album’s direction and appeal. Jollett openly salutes his heroes here: His solemn vocals evoke the National’s Matt Berninger, the echoing guitar line and messianic uplift reveal a debt to U2, and the infectious chanting suggest Arcade Fire. He transcends his influences, though, in the nuances: As the songs build toward the truly epic, resistance becomes futile. Considering that the band can’t take its all-consuming drive any higher, the only course for the Airborne Toxic Event in the future will be to reinvent itself à la Radiohead with “OK Computer.” Until then, Jollett will have to make do with the brass ring he’s holding on to with all his fortitude; everyone else can just come along for the ride.

— Matt Diehl

The Airborne Toxic Event
“All at Once”
Three stars (Out of four)