Photo from Weyrd Son Records
Way Station, the new album from Brooklyn industrial punks Pop. 1280, is a fitting title. It marks a new chapter for the band not only in material, but in its creative dynamic.
In the three years since the group’s last release, 2016’s Paradise, the band lost two key members with the departures of its drummer and synth player, leaving singer Chris Bug and guitarist Ivan Lip to figure out ways to fill the sonic voids their former bandmates left behind.
After a period of experimenting with samples and drum machines, the duo added Matthew Hord (of Running) on synthesizer and the band reemerged as a trio for its fourth album Way Station. On Way Station, Pop. 1280 checks in, once again, on solid ground and embraces the uncertainties that come with major transitions in life.
Despite personnel changes, the band retains its core characteristics, such as an inkling for the macabre and horrific. But, whereas past releases conjured science fiction and the occult, Way Station’s more-realistic-than-fantastic lyrics and nerve-wracking music more closely resemble a psychological thriller where a narrator is trying to decide the next step forward while battling anxiety and dread.
In Bug’s commanding but sometimes muddled lyrics, there is an array of disastrous imagery, the most frequent of which being a car crash. At least four of Way Station’s 11 songs include scenes of automobile accidents. “Crossing the four way/You seem to expect it/You’re never looking both ways,” Bug forewarns on the first single “Under Duress,” one of the album’s most engrossing songs, pairing a chiptune-like drumbeat with a windy synth. “There’s a wreck on the highway/glad it’s not me/Keep the windows up/and try not to breathe,” he later scowls on “Empathetics.” Throughout Way Station’s nearly 38-minute runtime, there’s always a constant danger of everything going awry.
In addition to personal tragedies and unexpected setbacks such as a car crash, Way Station is also concerned with the change in our collective world, specifically the deterioration of the environment. Songs such as “Monument” paint a dismal picture of a polluted world full of overflowing sewers and dead animals. “Home Sweet Hole,” a grinding track elevated by Hord’s horror movie-like synth bursts, imagines an equally unwelcoming future highlighted by ominous lyrics such as “The deserts are blowing in/The smell of horse and buggy” and “the patina greens and grows.”
But, despite the album’s foreboding atmosphere, Way Station is not a depressing listen and is full of exciting musical moments. Along with Hord’s fearsome synth that colors each song, guitarist Ivan Lip contributes several well-crafted and engaging riffs on songs such as “Doves,” “Leading the Spider On” and “Hospice.”
On “Hospice,” in particular, Lip crafts a dark surf rock vibe as Bug details a hotel-like hospice near a beach, a setting reminiscent of Shutter Island or The Seventh Seal. It’s interesting to note the refined songwriting and improved recording quality of “Hospice” compared to “Bodies in the Dunes,” another beach-themed song the band released on its 2012 album The Horror. Bug employs some of the album’s most memorable lyrics on “Hospice” such as “Life is like a car crash/Sudden and sweet/ Sometimes you’re the automobile/And sometimes you’re the street,” making it one of this LP’s standout tracks and its title metaphor plays into the album’s larger message of transitioning from one situation or state to the next. “TV’s on in another room,” he gravely observes. “Someone checked out today.”
The album ends with the song “Secret Rendezvous,” an ultimate resignation in the struggle to try to control the uncontrollable. Over additional guitar by Scott Keirnan and Hord’s trumpet-like synth, the song’s narrator finally resolves to give in to whatever will happen, deciding, “I’ll keep my genesis inside/A world within a world/Is small enough to hide.” Compared to the homicidal rage of the opening track, “Boom Operator,” which is enjoyable in the same way as a slasher flick, the closing song relates the toll that modern anxieties take on the individual, forcing him or her to eventually embrace uncertainty in order to overcome it. The track is a somber, thoughtful way to wrap up the album’s themes.
Keeping its signature voice and tone still intact, Pop. 1280 does not disappoint on Way Station. Although the ban’s sound is less dense now with only three members, its members continue to experiment with new textures, explore worthwhile themes and write hooks that are as morbid as they are catchy. Way Station is album that finds strength and catharsis in the face of uncertainty and comes from a band that has dealt with it firsthand.