The Century of the Self

Airbag – The Century Of The Self

Since I started this hobby 18 months ago, I have been dreading this moment coming. It is probably because I am not musical in the slightest, I just love listening to music, that I tend to be in awe of musicians and therefore am very reluctant to be too negative. Don’t get me wrong, as a reviewer it’s ok to critique as music evokes very personal reactions so one person’s opinion is of no particular significance in the grand scheme, but unfortunately this is an album where, for me, positive thoughts are few and far between.

Coming as this album does after the exceedingly well received 2020 album A Day at the Beach makes this especially disappointing. If Airbag fans want to console themselves after reading this review of the latest release, then Leo Trimming’s sage words on that album would be a great place to start. A Day at the Beach was my gateway into Airbag and I am in total agreement with his wholehearted praise for it.

Still, that was then, and this is now. The Century of the Self is the band’s sixth album since their first EP released in 2004. On tour, they have supported some of the biggest prog bands, including three turns on Cruise to the Edge, thereby establishing themselves as a strong player in the prog scene and with the success of A Day at the Beach the band was looking like they could break through to the top tier of the prog eco-system any minute.

Since the pandemic bought the curtain down on the 2010’s, many prog bands have shown themselves to be re-vitalised after the turbulent years of lockdown and the recovery process. The likes of Marillion, Steven Wilson and Porcupine Tree, Big Big Train and dare I say it Yes, have all come through their own dark times and returned with impressive new music, usually with a twist and sounding fresh. Younger bands have also been prolific, making the last few years particularly exciting times.

Having only become aware of Airbag’s music at the time of their previous album I was really keen to hear this new release in the context of the development in the prog landscape so far in this decade. Unfortunately, this context only highlights the lack of development in the Airbag sound. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not in anyone’s interest to expect the band to make a replica of a previous album, but with The Century of the Self they have thrown the epic, cinematic baby out with the bath water and left us with a competent collection of songs but bringing nothing new, the band suffocating in the constriction of their ties to the predominant influences of previous eras. We are promised “a voyage through introspection and intensity” and in many respects that is exactly what we get, interminably, with the playlist seemingly presented with no thought to the listening experience in mind.

Personally, after giving the album every chance to grow on me, I feel that as much as the song-writing fails to capture the imagination, that this a production and engineering problem more than anything else. The core elements of the songs are there but it’s a sterile listen with no soul, no court, and very little spark. In stark contrast to the band’s back catalogue there is an absence of coherent story-telling and distinct, dramatic peaks and troughs, both in the sonic and emotional ranges.

Track 1, Dysphoria begins with a lackadaisical series of notes repetitiously played out on guitar above a tedious, metronomic drum beat. It is soulless industrial post-rock, plodding and uninspiring. The choruses and instrumental breaks that occasionally break the monotony contain trademark ‘rock’ elements that supply noise but not the drama that would lift the track. Later, in contrast but sounding totally out of place in this context, a Floydian guitar solo passage plays out the track to a close. What a strange brew.

Tyrants and Kings is arguably the highlight of the album. Despite the low bar, there is a more appealing element of industrial funk in the mix of drums, bass and guitar that is more distinctively Airbag-like, but again, the song itself relies on a repetitious metronomic beat and the oft-repeated vocal mantra ‘set me free’ becomes tiresome. The closing guitar solo is competent but underwhelming, lacking in imagination, perhaps reflecting the uninspiring backdrop provided by the rhythm section.

Awakening sees Airbag in Steven Wilson tribute territory, even to the point of emulating the vocal tones. It’s a modern-day contemplative, melodic prog song that lacks all the necessary attributes of originality, soul, passion and wonder. For me, its lifeless and notably non-progressive.

Erase attempts to bring some edginess into the mix with a frenetic bass line that drives the first four minutes of the song. Sounds promising, except the road we are on is a cul-de-sac. We have heard this style of music so many times before, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but the band have chosen to produce a facsimile rather than imposing on it their own originality. We turn a few corners in the second half but it’s a road well-travelled, and in the end this one is a memory that will soon be ‘erased’.

Tear It Down front loads all the traditional melodic prog tropes in the extended intro, using light synth tones and strummed guitar chords to create an atmosphere of sorts. For me, the drum pattern is over-bearing and a distraction, but there is some promise in this overture. Some crashing guitars and another vocal mantra signal a change in mood and precede a number of interesting instrumental sections. I would have loved to see the band rock this one out to a climax with some virtuoso jamming but a false-ending heralds another smooth, insipid, and misplaced Floydian guitar solo at the end of which the track comes to an abrupt stop, unapologetically signifying the emptying of the band’s bucket of inspiration.

I can only guess how this album evolved, but the imagery presented by the lyrical themes seems to be at odds with the way that the band normally approaches its song-writing, and the style of music they have adopted seems to be well out of their comfort zone. The psychodrama portrayed in the lyrics has prompted the band to exclude most of the lighter textured music that is the band’s hallmark from the main body of the tracks. Rather than fully committing to this strategy however, and then stretching themselves out further in that direction, the band has chosen to plug in guitar solos to keep reminding listeners of their melodic prog credentials. The result is neither one thing nor the other.

Maybe an independent mind added into the production process could have resulted in a more positive outcome, but I hope that this turns out to be a one-off mis-step and that the band get back on the right track sooner rather than later.

01. Dysphoria (10:38)
02. Tyrants And Kings (6:47)
03. Awakening (6:44)
04. Erase (7:50)
05. Tear It Down (15:00)

Total Time – 46:59

Asle Tostrup – Vocals, Keyboards, Programming
Henrik Bergan Fossum – Drums
Bjørn Riis – Guitars, Bass, Keyboards, Backing Vocals
~ With:
Ole Michael Bjørndal – Guitar (1, 2 & 5)
Kristian Hultgren – Bass (1 & 5)
Simen Valldal Johannessen – Keyboards (5)

Record Label: Karisma Records
Country of Origin: Norway
Date of Release: 14thJune 2024

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