Attention, Earthlings: Exray’s frontman Jon Bernson has had enough of your kind. “Human life is not valued at all,” he told me recently. “We’re all competing against each other. I want to get out to a colony in space where we actually need each other.”
Such is the theme of Trust A Robot, Exray’s cryptic follow-up to its autobiographical self-titled debut, which scrutinized the band’s own neighborhood and attempted to make sense of its immediate surroundings. There, the sounds were more abrasive: aggressive guitar solos rested atop pulsating electro-pop melodies; Bernson’s distorted vocals wafted amongst he and Michael Falsetto-Mapp’s twitchy soundtrack. Conversely, Trust A Robot is a lo-fi concept album exploring the ideas of space travel and life on other planets. In the not-so-distant future, Earth is in peril, and the protagonist—a robot—is tasked with finding another planet the human race can re-populate.
The origin of Exray’s sci-fi sound can be traced to TheWorks, a cosmic side project Bernson and Mapp recorded last year with other like-minded producers. That group—known collectively as THEMAYS—quickly drifted into extraterrestrial territory with its spacey break beats and glitchy compositions; deep synths merged with computerized sounds to create an otherworldly sprinkling of heavy electronica, the likes of which were equally esoteric and psychedelic. Yet it barely scratched the surface for Bernson and Mapp, as its 10-minute runtime provided just a fleeting glimpse into their newfound artistic direction. Still, TheWorks felt steadfast in its approach, more so than Exray’s 2011 full-length, which properly encased the group’s vast exasperation and searched for a creative voice. Nonetheless, Bernson’s disenchantment slowly drifted to the fore: “First few weeks, I had a lot of strange ideas,” he groans near the album’s end. “Earth was a box, the moon was a bulb at the top of it.”
On Trust A Robot, those “strange ideas” take over, but the results are surprisingly digestible. For this album’s 32 minutes, the band forges an accessible path to the cosmos with a focused set of scant instrumentals that supplant the premise. With a back-story this vast, an abrasive soundscape would’ve further complicated matters. Instead, the subdued backdrop fits well against Bernson’s restless yearning. Take “Yellow Light,” on which the vocalist depicts the protagonist “looking for blue air,” his voice almost desperate as the main character marches on. In the background: a simple concoction of midtempo percussion, sporadic synthesizers, and ambient guitar strings. The mood isn’t overly weary. Songs like “Look Outside” and “On Reality” feel positive, as if the robot has reached its destination.
Spacey albums certainly aren’t new. Forty years ago, David Bowie’s The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars detailed the fictional career trek of Ziggy Stardust, an alien rocker who lived a life of pop indulgence—sex and drugs—until it consumed him and he died onstage. Earlier this year, Air’s Le Voyage Dans la Lune (A Trip to the Moon) scored a 1902 science fiction film of the same name. So Trust A Robot doesn’t break new ground. Unlike the self-titled debut, there aren’t as many standout songs and the mix seems a bit muddy. But it works for different reasons. While the aforementioned project carried volcanic tracks like “Hesitation” and “Forest of Sand,” this one should be taken in its entirety. It offers a detailed look into Exray’s quirky aesthetic. Given the state of the world, it’s not uncommon to hear such bewilderment. Scandals abound, civil rights are abused, and the economy still lags. Maybe Bernson is on to something. “We’re just ants on this little rock,” he says. “At the end of the day, we’ve overpopulated the planet and it’s hard to value each other.”