Team Picture’s debut album, ‘The Menace of Mechanical Music’, is a glorious, provocative spectacle that brilliantly articulates humanity’s gradual demise.
Four years into their existence, Team Picture, to use a feline analogy, are already on their fourth life. While the sextet’s composition remains the same, they have restlessly evolved. Their early years mirrored the long-storied history of the Leeds music, as they dabbled in anthemic indie rock and titillating post-punk. Their third life had them looking further afield, namely to the ’80s and John Hughes-inspired synth-pop. This latest chapter has the collective taking a completely different approach, where they are now leading as opposed to following. Their meticulous efforts since 2018’s Recital EP has resulted in a sound that cannot be easily categorized. They have instead forged their own path much like David Byrne, Radiohead, Arcade Fire, and other master innovators on their debut album.
The Menace of Mechanical Music is a glorious spectacle, filled with incredible depth and diversity. It is like visiting the Tate Modern, where every art piece is striking yet different. A fluidity, however, exists between each item in order to tell a story of the world that was and is today.
The visit to Team Picture’s gallery begins with the rapturous “Baby Rattlesnake”. The song is treasure trove of wondrous sound, combining the synth-pop dynamics of bands like Chromatics, the art-rock brilliance of Anohni, and the sensuality of Berlin. Like very great work of art, there is more than meets the eye. Beneath the stunning brilliance, the band takes us inside the mind of a person being devoured by time and space. Eventually, she slowly fades away and becomes a shadow. The dizzying, Gothic synth-pop ballad, “Sleeptype Auction”, similarly tells the tale of one falling into the rabbit hole and never re-emerging. Where one has fallen, another has escaped, as told on the art-rock masterpiece, “Flower Pots, Electric Beds”. Reminiscent of Wild Beasts’ riveting and urgent epics, a solitary entity reveals he has found empathy.
The idea of what it means to be human percolates across the album, which takes its name from John Philip Sousa’s 1906 essay of the same name. In reference to phonographs, self-playing pianos, and other new inventions, the American composer wrote that mechanical music was “sweeping across the country with the speed of a transient fashion in slang or Panama hats, political war cries or popular novels” and was becoming a “substitute for human skill, intelligence and soul”. Fears of automation and virtual reality, as such, existed well before the concept of A.I. was introduced. Team Picture, though, have extended this concept to the everything that exists.
The breathtaking “Handsome Machine” best encapsulates this more than any of the record’s 12 songs. As Lush-like shoegaze combines with Still Corners’ synth-pop, the band address the fading intimacy in relationships, as one seeks pleasure in the artificial than the actual. Softly, the words, “Show me what you mean to me / I need a sacrifice, something tangible“, fill the air, and the tension between the two central characteristics can be immediately felt. The dramatic synth-driven, dream-pop number, “Compartment(s)”, however, recounts one man’s attempt to salvage what was real. He beckons, “We don’t have to choose one or another / We don’t have to separate”.
In reality, though, uncertainty reigns over our thoughts. “Will you tell me what you want to do?”, is repeatedly asked on the wonderfully bleak and intoxicating “this is the”. Akin to the brooding and stunning atmospheres of The Cure’s most majestic, sonic tapestries, Team Picture have crafted an awe-inspiring, goosebump-inducing number in sound and words. The final minute, in particular, is unforgettable.
Team Picture find steady ground in the band’s second half. The slow-building and superb new-wave rocker, “Keep Left”, is one part David Byrne and another part Arcade Fire. Through the off-kilter, the group adopt the persona of an individual who has been to the brink of death. The power ballad “Slowest Hype” sounds like the late Michael Hutchence teaming up with The National’s Aaron and Bryce Dessner. It’s a reminder that the most humbling things can be as meaningful as the most luxurious and complex.
The album concludes with the whirling, delirious alt-pop rocker “Quit Reading”. It’s an unusual number to end the record with its upbeat approach and its meandering lyrics that address a racist woman, people’s obsessions, and consumerism. Art, though, is not predictable. At its best, art provokes. In the overall arc of this exhibit, the album could only end with a song like “Quit Reading”, which brings us back to the chaos of reality. As much as we wish to escape through our own fantasies or alternative dimensions, our lives still require fixing. We still need human skill, intelligence, and soul to get us out of our mess.
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