Vast Robot Armies (VRA) has existed for the better part of a decade, an impressive feat for any band. VRA rose from the ashes of many respected projects, think The Life and Times; Sometimes Why; Shiner; Failure; and Sundiver – bandleader Jason Thomson used his veteran experience (with the help of bandmates Jon Agee & Joseph Wells and a few other talented friends) to create his latest offering, The What Gallery (TWG). Informed by the storied sounds of his past but never fully aping them, The What Gallery is a collection of eight songs of dark pop, sludgy indie rock, and a pounding percussive presence that demands attention.
Before I dive into the music, I’d like to highlight an important underlying theme here – ego death. Jason and producer Jordon Zadorozny (Sam Roberts, Hole, Chris Cornell) set out to record an album with an unshakeable vision. It wasn’t until Thomson/Zadorozny took a trip to see their friends Shiner perform that they were struck with the realization that collaboration might add some special sauce to The What Gallery. There are guests all over TWG, including Shiner drummer Jason Gerkin and bassist Paul Malinowski, as well as multi-instrumentalist Mike Dulin. Zadorozny elaborates below:
“I don’t think I’ve ever recorded an album where the main songwriter and vocalist has so consciously excised himself from the recording process. Not that the album isn’t Jason’s vision, but it was extraordinary watching Jason as he slowly came to the realization that utilizing the talents of his close musical friends was a better idea than keeping everything in-house on this batch of songs”
Needless to say, TWG exists to show the power of collaboration and how letting go of the creative reins can ultimately lead your art into unexpected territory. One listen through TWG and you’ll realize the magic Jason curated via this legendary group of musicians. As they’ve put it, it’s “a testament to making a solid plan and then throwing it all out it the window to serve the music.”
ICYMI, we previously covered VRA’s single (and album opener), “Like A Bug.” VRA was wise to start the album with “Bug,” as it highlights the things that make The What Gallery so appealing – gigantic murky bass, plunking electric piano, and a massive chorus beat that harkens back to The Life and Times. “Bug” has some of the album’s headiest moments – there’s some absolutely massive rhythmic play here and the song twists and turns with a dark energy that juxtaposes nicely against the otherwise pleasant indie rock songwriting. Song two, “Passengers” picks up where “Like A Bug” left off – while this song feels less like a stereotypical “single” than “Bug,” it gives the band a bit more room to flex their songwriting muscles.
“Taking Back The Time” features The Life and Times’ (and Shiner’s) Allen Epley. This song is one of my favorite moments on the album – strangely sunny melodies are slammed out with noisy, droning guitar whirrs. A uniquely swung drumbeat gives this one a jaunty feel without ever feeling like it’s being overplayed or overdone. Most importantly, Epley’s distinctive baritone cuts through the mix perfectly – his timbre is unmistakable and meshes well with the other vocalists featured across the album.
There are lots of other excellent moments across TWG, including the upbeat bombast of “What Have You Done Lately.” The album outlier award goes to the eclectic “Penny Candy,” which flagellates wildly across rhythms and song structures… I’m pretty sure I heard a sitar in there somewhere, too.
Finally, TWG ends with the epic “Head In The Box.” Opening with what sounds like toy keyboard sounds and some left field, pitter-patter percussion, I was pleased to hear that VRA continued to keep me guessing even on song number eight. Don’t worry, the song explodes back into the grimy bass tones and soaring guitars you’ve come to expect by now, but it’s always a pleasure to hear a little experimentation instrumentally, especially when the album feels cohesive as a whole. As the song closes out with a harmony sing-along of “I don’t know what to think,” it feels fitting for a band that put together an album who’s plan A was thrown out the window.
One last quick editors note: my band opened for Sometimes Why and The Life and Times in the early 2010s. I don’t often get to write about bands I’ve shared a stage with; it’s been a fun and fulfilling exercise re-visiting the music of a songwriter I crossed paths with long ago. After listening to Jason’s new work, it has been a valuable lesson in not letting my hubris take the wheel in my own songwriting.