Looking through the general peritext around Automatic, pretty much every musical beat they’ve hit up to now has led up to the very distinct art-rock identity they’ve formed. They get a running start with drummer Lola Dompé’s father being Bauhaus sticksman Kevin Haskins, while the band itself is a fully guitar-less affair, getting by on bass, drums, vocals and synths pulled from the playbooks of the likes of Neu! and Suicide. If there was such a thing as the ultimate indie holy grail, Automatic could well be it, such is the depths that this trio are rooted in when it comes to tearing any notion of conventionality within indie and post-punk to shreds. Of course, the music has to be engaging first, something that this particular stripe of band tends to stumble on (particularly in psychedelic and Krautrock circles), though even with the mounds of hype that’s effectively customary at this stage, Automatic definitely have the potential to achieve something that’s at the very least interesting.
And honestly, for an album that would appear to be as fine-tuned to appeal to some very niche audiences as Signal is, there’s actually a lot that resonates on a level that’s far more pop-friendly. The weirder, more off-kilter tones and textures do appear, but there’s a sense of spryness that comes in Automatic’s execution that does worm its way in fairly deeply, and the marriage of the two results in a fascinating little album that could occasionally do with expanding its pool of ideas, but generally manages to hit its mark. Even if it’s not for everyone, the potential that Signal could have is wider than it might’ve initially let on, and that’s interesting to consider.
If anything, it’s where Automatic’s primary foundations lie above all else, with more of a prominent post-punk skin that’s less integral to the vision of the overall product that serving as a way to consolidate and deepen everything that’s already laid down. Those poppier touchstones that Automatic draw from do bring a lot to their sound as well; The Go-Go’s are the most prominent in not only lending the band its name but also in the new wave clip of tracks like Too Much Money, but the hints of a slighter darker Blondie on I Love You, Fine and Champagne make for a sonic take that’s able to connect all the threads that Automatic try their best to work with throughout. It doesn’t feel like too much of a shock to say that doesn’t always happen either, especially for an album trying to blend two distinct musical worlds like this one is, but when tracks like Highway dive deeper into their Krautrock side with their fatter basslines and warping synths for a semi-instrumental number pulling from ‘70s sci-fi TV themes above anything else, it’s not the best conduit for making a stable listen, and ultimately doesn’t feel all that needed.
On the whole though, Automatic are able to keep the darker undertones able to mesh with a poppy execution rather well, largely through generally snappy track lengths that never extend past what they really need, but also in a sense of tone that favours both sides equally. There’s a lot of this in the production, with a more muted, art-rock filter placed over everything that keeps the fuzzier, underground vibe stark, but makes Halle Saxon’s bass and Izzy Glaudini’s synths pop out of the mix as the dominant sources of melody. Even if the lyrics don’t feel all that transgressive, they do a fairly good job at a similar thing too, capturing a sense of ennui, dissatisfaction and, on Electrocution, real-life pain, and funnelling them into both the pop and post-punk context that does end up crossing over. It’s a neat little trick that keeps the album as kinetic as possible with little time wasted, and that primarily works to Automatic’s favour throughout.
It’s a generally unexpected surprise overall, but one that does pay off rather handsomely with how enjoyable and listenable Signal actually is. Away from the odd missteps that don’t entirely coalesce, Automatic are able to keep their efforts tight and focused while having just enough wiggle room to branch out and shoot for more, and it does work for them on the whole. There’s still depth and detail without casting off a distinct sense of hookiness, and Automatic hit that midpoint with enough accuracy and frequency to make something really quite enjoyable with the potential to do more than could’ve really ever been anticipated.
For fans of: Blondie, Fontaines D.C., Drahla
Words by Luke Nuttall
‘Signal’ by Automatic is released on 27th September on Stones Throw Records.