When the first line of an album is “I am a human being capable of doing terrible things”, it’s expected that the songs to follow will plunge even further into torment with heavy riffs and angst-filled lyrics, a la My Chemical Romance. But these lyrics aren’t taken from a pop punk album of the early millennium; instead, they’re from the title track and first song on Awolnation’s album Run (2015). The opening is quite enigmatic, and even more so at the end when left with, “You people are mistaken if you think that I’m awake and celebrating anything that I’ve become” – the perfect recipe for a confessional punk album.
Except it’s not. Despite the solemn lyrics, Run is still faithful to Awolnation’s signature sound of seamlessly mixing heavyweight electronic beats with daintier, sweeter alternative rock melodies. At any point, Aaron Bruno’s soft, angelic voice switches to a full on raspy scream – practically comparable to Linkin Park’s Chester Bennington – while the instrumentals almost seem to echo the cheery pop songs of the eighties. Awolnation’s music – especially Run – is certainly an acquired taste, but it should not go unappreciated. And now, nearly a year after its release, I’m still shocked at how underappreciated the album continues to be.
Electronic dance music (EDM) has never appealed to me; mostly because the roots of my taste lie within the pop punk genre. Aaron Bruno single-handedly pulled me out of that narrow-minded hole: first with his grunge band Home Town Hero, then with the slightly more pop-computerized Under the Influence of Giants until Awolnation (his most recent endeavor) convinced me that not all electronic music is total trash. An electronic evolution via the road of rock isn’t completely unfamiliar; in the eighties, bands like Duran Duran and The Descendents experimented with embracing the synthesizer and including it with their usual instrumental lineup – which added an interesting layer of pop to the heavy-hitting rock anthems audiences were used to and expected.
But Awolnation may be best compared to the Electric Light Orchestra. For instance, their 1978 hit “Sweet Talkin’ Woman” had a rhythm section composed of drums and guitars while the rest of the track experimented with the synthesizer, auto-tune effects to distort Jeff Lynne’s commanding vocals, and even classical elements with violins sampled throughout the song. This is no different for Awolnation. The title track to Run obtains all of the aforementioned attributes: strong percussion, definite electronic alterations to the instrumentals and vocals, and even a small violin breakdown around the two-minute mark. Though Awolnation draws on these elements from ancestor bands like ELO, their sound still manages to be completely unique and satisfyingly fresh.
More modern bands, like Maroon 5, have made similar genre transitions. Maroon 5’s recent album V (2014) included mostly pop-influenced, auto-tuned sounding tracks (including “This Summer’s Gonna Hurt Like a Motherfucker” …whatever that means) that seem like a far, far cry from their heartbreak inspired debut album Songs About Jane (2002). Similar to Maroon 5’s evolution, Run’s predecessor Megalithic Symphony (2011) was slightly truer to Bruno’s rock origins. The album is somewhat more structured, except for the final track “Knights of Shame” that runs well over fourteen minutes.
Lyrically, Megalithic Symphony includes more evidence of Bruno as a recluse rocker. Falling short of expectations with a girl, ADD, the apocalypse, robbing the rich, and suicidal thoughts are just a few of the brooding topics covered over the course of the album’s fourteen tracks, exhibiting Bruno as a tormented musician at its finest. So at its core, it’s safe to say Megalithic Symphony could be filed under the rock genre, though at times the electronic instrumentals overwhelm any apparent trace of it. Runsways even more toward electronic, something that is far more apparent than in the previous album. Despite that fact, it’s somehow even more captivating and remarkable than Megalithic Symphony – even to a listener that formerly despised anything that may even faintly taste of EDM.
Maybe Aaron Bruno’s mix of soft and rough vocals and rare style of turning any song into an epic ballad is what captivates me. Or maybe his emo-like lyrics leave me feeling nostalgic for the pop punk songs that I once adored as a wannabe rebel teenager. After all, one of my all-time favorite Fall Out Boy tracks include the lines “Breathing just passes the time / Until we all just get old and die / Now talking’s just a waste of breath / And living’s just a waste of death”, and if that doesn’t scream emotional, tormented teen pop punk, then I’m not sure what does.
Comparably, to quote Bruno’s lyrics on Run’s track “Hollow Moon (Bad Wolf)”: “Motherfucker I’ll be back from the dead soon / I’ll be watching from the center of the hollow moon / Oh, oh my God I think I might’ve made a mistake / Waiting patiently was waiting taking up space / We are waiting taking up space”. The terrifically dark words sound ironic, yet they somehow perfectly balance out the upbeat, electronic rhythms. Think of ELO’s 1975 hit “Evil Woman”. Even though the song narrates a man horribly used and distraught by a woman, it is still one of their most melodically upbeat tracks. In a very similar style, Awolnation takes raw, organic lyrics and throws them together with exultant artificial sounds that come out the other end as an experimental work of art.
So why is Bruno’s adolescent, rebellious electronic rock band so underrated?
Art isn’t respectable because the end product is a finished masterpiece, but because it’s unique. Aaron Bruno certainly has not perfected or completed his evolution as an artist, but his style has continued to stay distinctive from the rest. In the case of Awolnation’s Run, the singles tend to follow a common song structure in an unsuccessful attempt to blend into the rest of the pop music that currently dominates the radio. Even the most “basic” songs on the album stand out from the usual interchangeable mainstream chart-toppers. The others, however, stray from typical song arrangement – some even passing the five-minute mark, like true rockers tend to do. Despite the lack of ability to place it neatly in a genre (far too rock to be electronic, and far too electronic to be rock) Run boldly creates its own category amidst a generation heavily dedicated to pop music.
For me, the familiar punk lyrics overlaying recognizable rock sounds slowly help me transition and participate with modern popular electronic music. I feel safe knowing the basis of each song will be familiar yet I’m still taken out of my comfort zone and gently pushed into the twenty-first century electronic era. Even though Aaron Bruno and Awolnation’s album will never be as highly celebrated as classics like Abbey Road, Thriller, or Nevermind, it’s clear that Run should still be approached as a work of musical art.