Slighter, brainchild of Portland, OR based Colin Allrich has been really busy. After releasing Erode in 2017, and last year’s Cause/Effect (QRO review), he is back with the full-length masterpiece Automata.
Coming in at ten tracks of dark electronic dystopian enjoyment, that is, if you don’t count the Variables, a separate atmospheric mix of the album solely for Bandcamp backers, you will have plenty to dig into. We’ve said before that Slighter’s music is best enjoyed with headphones, and this is no different with Automata. If there is a space between the meeting of trip hop and dark electronica in Massive Attack’s Mezzanine and the marriage of down tempo spoken word with stark industrial whispers that would make Tricky fans very happy, and yet still very much it’s own beast, that would be getting closer to the feel of Automata. It is a hard thing in this and age of single song streaming to find coherency in the void. Automata tells a story in sound, not as a concept album per say, but sonically there is connection and purpose from beginning to end and to best enjoy the album is to listen through to pick up on tone and nuance.
That’s not to say there are not clear singles, there are a few from Moris Blak collaboration “The Hunt” (QRO review) that would feel fresh on any dancefloor with strong dark crooning vocals that are radio ready and a killer video, with makeup work by A.J. Modely. Craig Joseph Huxtable (OhmEletronic/Landscape Body Machine) team-up “Give Me” is addictive in it’s dancefloor ready beat and smooth vocal delivery, and “Undertow”, which is a standout on the album, both in intensity and featuring some of Allrich’s strongest vocal work since Cause/ Effect’s “Over”. At almost eight minutes long, the track is the lengthiest on the record, but time flies when you are having fun, and not a second feels wasted.
Spoken word is often underutilized in modern music, but Allrich doesn’t shy from the medium with tracks “Imbalance”, a glitchy apocalyptic piece on the insufficiency of morality in nature with vocal artist Kadin Contois. In a matter-of-fact tone talks of the futility of existence from what feels like a distant broadcast, yet somehow makes you okay with it. “A Moment of Clarity” by author R. A. Desilets is an ethereal counterpoint in an album of intensity and is a welcomed moment of peace featuring my favorite lyric on the album. Somehow the vocal delivery of the line, “No one makes it out alright” is more poignant for the tone and is one of my favorite moments in Automata.
The album ends with “Static On the Line”, which features a killer bassline and evokes a sense of dread in the modern world of connectivity. It’s a song that leaves you wanting more, which makes it all the more fit for an album closer. Automata lends itself well for replay. It’s a sweeping album crossing into many planes of electronic experimentation while selling a cohesive whole. It’s dark, brooding, ethereal, atmospheric, and honest. We had an opportunity to catch Allrich in a rare free moment to discuss the album and try to get into the mind of one of our favorite electronic musicians.
I can say the conceptual aspect of the record is meant to all be the antithesis of all the Drum & Bass, and even the agro “Industrial” of ‘Erode’.
QRO: Automata is very thematically constant, did you go into writing it with clear dystopian vibes?
Colin Allrich: I’m not terribly fond of laying out the reasons behind the music I write, I want the audience to adapt it to their own interpretations. I guess if pressed, I’d say it’s all personal emotionality that is written with a bit of social commentary in its prose. But again I wouldn’t take the lyrics all literally. I’m not advocating anyone going into a Charles Bronson vigilante mode after hearing “The Hunt”, if you know what I mean.
QRO: Certainly. It seems that artists can become an easy scapegoat for anything from depression to the downfall of society if the lyrics aren’t upbeat. Having harsher lyrics isn’t necessarily s reflection of an artist’s character.
CA: Well I’d hope we, collectively, are moving towards having less Tipper Gore’s needing to police art and expressionism… but I’m sure in some places it’s still a problem. And on the character point there, it’s also amusing to me that certain fans want us to be in some perpetual bad mood or keep that persona they hear on the records up when we’re in our homes and going about daily lives. Or social media. We still have a sense of humor! [laughs]
QRO: How do you balance mood when planning an album, as in upbeat vs down tempo tracks while keeping coherency?
CA: I can say the conceptual aspect of the record is meant to all be the antithesis of all the Drum & Bass, and even the agro “Industrial” of Erode. There’s nothing above 124 BPM (“Undertow”) on this record. As far as coherency, I consider myself to be a recording artist – in the sense that the album format is my medium of choice. So I do look at things like: how many tracks will be needed to complete the big picture of the record, how to balance the themes I’ve been writing out in song writing sessions… So I think if you lean on the concept early on, then I think it tends to come very naturally.
I’ve had to overcome my own self-loathing over my voice.
QRO: Your vocal work is strong in this album, songs “Isolate” and “The Hunt” especially, are you doing anything differently?
CA: Well firstly, thank you. I’ve had to overcome my own self-loathing over my voice. And with that comes the self-actualization that I fit within a certain range and style, and if I try to manipulate my voice out of that range – I’m straining it and the performance suffers. You can hear that on Erode at points when I try to go into “industrial mode.” So within that comes venerability, to be okay with how my natural voice sounds when I sing. And that in turn builds confidence I think. Automata is definitely the record I’ve felt the most comfortable singing and the reason I took the bulk of the vocals on myself.
QRO: It works really well for the album. I think your vocal work is great, particularly love the vocals on Cause/Effect’s “Over”.
CA: I definitely think “Over” was the turning point. I’m not really sure where that song came from; I didn’t have a plan that day. It was a bass riff I was playing with at first and it just evolved from there. When it was time to work out some vocals, I found myself leaning on my natural range. Something sort of clicked there, saying to myself – just do it like this from now on. Best part was when I turned that one over to be mixed, was one of the times I knew I needed some help since the percussion on that is all live drumming and I have the least amount of practical experience with a live drum kit in a mix.
Chris Allen did it for me; he mixed for UNKLE including the “War Stories” album, which “Over” is in that ballpark of that big, fuzzy post-rock atmosphere so it was a good fit. So Chris says to me after he gets in to the session to work on, “you know you’re on that Robert Del Naja (3D) tip here with the vocal.” And this is like, pretty much the best comparison I could imagine being given. Massive Attack is hugely inspirational to me for the last 20 years. So that definitely kicked me in the right direction for Automata.
I think if you present the scope of what you’re trying to accomplish, and let your collaborators interpret that themselves, you can get on the same page pretty easily…
QRO: You have a lot of collaborators on this album, does this help or hinder when working on a strongly themed album?
CA: I actually think this is the least amount of them I’ve had on an album? [laughs] I think the four I picked here for this record were definitely part of the conceptual start of the whole idea. I knew I wanted my partner Rachel (R.A. Desilets) to reprise her spoken word guest appearance as I knew she’d fit in well.
Whereas Kadin’s spoken word was one of those moments of serendipitous collaboration when he posted those opening lines to “Imbalance” on Facebook – to which I immediately got in touch to pitch my idea for this record and how I’d love for him to expand on it because of how on point it could be within the record as a transitional track. So I think if you present the scope of what you’re trying to accomplish, and let your collaborators interpret that themselves, you can get on the same page pretty easily… if you’re picking the right people that is! I think everyone did a stellar job with their parts in Automata.
QRO: Can you explain a bit of the writing process behind Automata?
CA: Songwriting for me is a very isolating process; I sort of shut down and have to flip my brain out of its analytical mode. Since I do sound design and other audio engineering as a day job, I make sure and distance myself away from that technical shit as much as I can, because I don’t need the ‘cart coming before the horse’ in that sense when you’ve just got lyrics to do.
So for Automata it became sort if ritualistic: I started each day wearing the same black oversized hoodie I’ve had since Los Angeles, which is sentimental to me, and a strong coffee every day I was writing. Prior to the writing process I spent a good amount of pre-conception time absorbing some films and some classic records that helped shape a ‘mood’ if you will. Sometimes I’d start an instrumental studio session with a prompt to myself, like, “What would the space between Trip Hop and Minimal Techno sound like?” – and that would launch me for the day. Will say, this record came together the quickest than anything else I’ve done, I’m not sure why. [laughs] Could be that hoodie.
QRO: New merch idea?
CA: Ha! Well I do have a merch line, so anything’s possible. Mine’s just on-demand with Spreadshirt, but you can get some gear I’ve designed myself for the Slighter “brand” that adds to the support of what I’m doing. It is all available on: http://slighterofficial.com
Songwriting for me is a very isolating process; I sort of shut down and have to flip my brain out of its analytical mode.
QRO: Is there a funny story behind the making of Automata?
CA: Ah, not really. If you want to count my studio cat – Nan – snoring loudly in her bed under my synths, so much so that I had to stop and go, “Is that some feedback off this guitar FX chain I’m working with? Or the cat?” Of course it was the cat.
QRO: How do you feel about the album’s reception?
CA: How does any artist? [laughs] I spent a lot of time in my 20s pining for accolades and ‘pulling punches’ to give either what I perceived as what the audience wanted, or what some of the labels I’ve worked with wanted from me. And that’s inherently bad for genuine creativity. What did Bowie say? “Don’t ever play to the gallery…”
And then there is the fact that hundreds of thousands of bands and artists, producers/DJs too, who are dumping piles on piles of music out every day of the week… So I position myself to think of the long haul. This record isn’t so topical that it’s obsolete in three months; I’m not after aligning with a genre or trend. Automata exists to be discovered when it lands with the right listener. I’d rather that honestly. The people who “get it” have it already, and have been extraordinarily supportive.
QRO: Have you heard anyone completely misinterpret the meaning in any of the songs?
CA: Not so much the meaning of the songs, but just how cognitively they associate a particular song with some other musician or song that I might not even be aware of in my own musical lexicon. As humans, we love familiarity, so it’s more a reflection of that listener trying to correlate my work with something they know, so they can build a neural pathway to my work.
So that always amuses me to hear, when I get a “I’m picking up a _______ influence here” and it’s truly the furthest away I could imagine for myself. But as far as interpretation, I’m not here to bash you on the head with my point in any of the songs. I write the lyrics my songs to work on different levels, beyond the literal. So take it how it works for you.
Always amuses me to hear, when I get a “I’m picking up a _______ influence here” and it’s truly the furthest away I could imagine for myself.
QRO: “The Hunt” is a dance song about murder, how did that collab come about?
CA: Is it about murder though? [laughs] There we go again. If you want to talk about an effortless collaboration, working with Brian (Moris Blak) is it. We both had a mutual appreciation for what each of us was doing, and early on in the conceptual stage of Automata I just struck up a conversation about doing something together. Next thing I knew I’ve got a instrumental beat from Brian in my inbox and I’m writing lyrics that day. Usually never happens that quick. I definitely think the imagery that is the Moris Blak experience sent my song writing in a direction that just clicked as a collaboration that fit within the Automata spectrum.
I’ve just done a vocal for his own album, song will be called “Violence”, so there’s more Slighter vs Moris Blak in the works.
QRO: We are excited to hear that! When can we expect that album?
CA: Good question! He’s in the thick of it right now. I do know there is a label involved and some other choice vocalists, I’ve heard some early demos with Amelia Arsenic (ex-Angelspit) that are really coming along nicely.
QRO: We heard you did a “variables” alt mix of the album. What was the thought process behind that/ how did it come about?
CA: Well a lot of these writing sessions, when it came to instrumentation, were born out of live experimentations with guitar feedback and synths in heavily manipulated form. And I thought on another level they would be exciting to hear as broken down soundscapes. I do some experimentations outside of Slighter, especially the Abstrakted moniker I use sometimes, so it was very natural to me to want create the “variables’.
It’s really just a companion to the album for Bandcamp fans and people who’ve bought the physical CD edition. I like giving supporters something that other people can’t get access to if they’re just the streaming type. Any fan whiling to buy my music should be rewarded with something extra for that level of support.
QRO: So the only way to hear Variables is to be a Bandcamp supporter? This is a good reason to pay attention to the Bandcamp for future exclusives.
CA: If you want to own it, download it, yes. I did a mix of the “Variables” for my friend’s radio show on Proton Radio recently. It’s a continuously mixed version of them, also included a B-side “Planned Obsolescence” which is only on the CD version of Automata. The mix can be streamed on demand with Proton’s radio site, from the show, e2, page. But yes, Bandcamp only. The mix was fun to do, I haven’t done a DJ-like mix in ages now.
I won’t listen to my old work once it’s out in the world. I sort of treat it like it isn’t mine anymore – it’s yours.
QRO: What was your favorite song to write on the album?
CA: Well you tend to get to the point with these songs you’ve heard thousands of times over, that makes you hate each and every one of them. But saying that, I’m still pretty happy with how “Survive” came out. That was an exercise in ‘less is more’ as I think there’s barely 15 tracks in that arrangement. When you produce a song like that, you’re taking great care in each individual track, or element in the arrangement, and I’m just very proud of how “full” the end result feels without needing to be over-produced and overwhelming for the listener on some grandiose scale. I feel like I nailed the point, without being superfluous in the production.
QRO: Now that you are a few weeks out, do you have any favorites? They say time gives insight…
CA: None! [laughs] I won’t listen to my old work once it’s out in the world. I sort of treat it like it isn’t mine anymore – it’s yours. I had my time with these songs, I learned about myself, I explored some levels of catharsis and took the emotional journey… And then couple that with the weeks and months of mixing and mastering, tidying everything up, it’s just more than enough time for me to spend living with the songs. Sort of the same way you don’t want to live with your offspring forever, they need to go eventually. So they’re yours now, invite them in and hopefully they can be part of the soundtrack of your life – beyond the torturous creative process I endured. [laughs]
QRO: What’s next for Slighter?
CA: Good question, I’m not truly sure at this moment. I can’t tour due to health issues, so I don’t have the typical cycle most bands have of: release a record, tour the record for months and months before returning to make new music, then doing it all over again. So I’ll most likely explore some side projects, and as well I’ve been slow cooking an idea of a EP of instrumental electronic beats, not so much Drum and Bass again, but definitely something with clubs in mind.
I have a love/hate relationship with Dance Music, because I’ve been so ingrained in it from earlier in my career, so if I feel like flirting with stuff that DJs and clubs would get on, I will do it. But don’t expect another Slighter album for a good while…
QRO: Well you know we will be listening for whatever’s next. Can’t wait to see where you go from Automata, in the mean time we will be keeping it on rotation!
CA: Thank you all, truly appreciate the support you’ve given Slighter. G’night!
Automata is out on all streaming platforms: Spotify, iTunes, Amazon, and you can find it on https://confusioninc.bandcamp.com/album/automata-deluxe-edition