Dope Stars Inc - '21st Century Slave' CD Review


A while back we clued you frisky FEARites in on the impending arrival of the new full-length CD from Italian cyberpunk/industrial combo Dope Stars Inc – already well-known to SAW fans as frequent fliers on the soundtracks to several installments of that series. The band teased us a little more this spring with the April release of the loaded EP Criminal Intents/Morning Star, which also introduced us to the album's epic concept of a dystopian future world (one that sounds a lot like the present), whose citizens are “totally brainwashed and enslaved by Corporatocracy's agenda and vicious propaganda,” and using dark science fiction concepts to examine dumbed-down consumer culture and show tomorrow's “Digital Warriors” the way to overthrow their humanity-crushing oppressors. “Technology is our terrific weapon and the network is our realm,” the band state in the album's manifesto. “In Cyberspace, we are the kings.”

For North American fans, the musical key to freedom will arrive tomorrow with the arrival of DSI's 11-track album 21st Century Slave, courtesy of Metropolis Records... and we've got the skinny on all the twisted techno-trinkets wrapped up inside this elegant but dangerous package. So hit the jump and jack yourself in!

Those already familiar with Dope Stars' output to date will not find many new surprises here, but fortunately there's still a lot of musical turf to explore within the confines of the so-called “cyberpunk” genre. With the emphasis still placed squarely on breakneck tempos, high-tension beats and furious, socially-conscious vocals, the band is still more focused on relentless momentum than atmosphere or mood; despite their prominent placement in a box office-topping horror film series, their music often feels more suited to a high-concept adventure flick than a doom-filled horror environment. Still, there's a feeling of growing unease and dangerous tension underlying many of these tracks that does a lot more than just trigger the club-hopping or head-banging regions of your neural pathways.

Cerebral concepts aside, this is one heavy bastard of an album, as proven by the colossal gut-ripping opener “Omegadrones,” whose buzzing synths and down-tuned industrial-metal riffs grind open the steel gates into a technically superior but socially corrupt future that, as I said before, looks a hell of a lot like today. It's a massive introduction, weighing in at nearly seven minutes, and appropriately features Rutger Hauer's climactic “tears in rain” soliloquy from Blade Runner – a source which, along with the writings of cyberpunk novelist William Gibson, serves as one of the album's primary thematic influences. The even heavier cut “21st Century Slave” belies its evil nature with a music-box opening, but that soon gives way to a solid slab of down-tuned guitars interwoven with buzzy synth breaks, effectively depicting a vast, monolithic enemy with the world's population under its thumb.

The brief, up-tempo “It's Today” has a brighter, more optimistic tone in keeping with the Digital Warriors' rallying cry, with a more pop-metal structure and feel compared to most of this band's body of work... but they pull it off with a rich, warm and layered sound. The softer side that song's motivation lies in the following cut “When I See You Smile,” which might have helped give more emotional resonance to the anthem that precedes it, but it falls flat due to a lack of energy, and is frankly just too emo for my liking. Fortunately, it's a short-lived detour from the story's energetic core, which launches mightily into action with the old-school electronics of the “Digital Warriors” anthem, supported by mighty martial drumbeats and a steady escalation of urgency, climaxing in a powerful, fist-pumping chorus. Founder/frontman Victor Love really shines in this track – his clean, brassy vocals and rhythmic delivery really get the adrenalin pumping, whether straight up the middle, blended with pristine harmonies, or treated with a vocoder-like effect.

The villain of the tale so effectively portrayed in the two opening tracks reestablishes itself in “Megacorps,” which opens with a sonic collage of government broadcasts and charges forward with a deep chugging guitar riff, overlaid with slightly detuned crunchy leads and ominous bell-like tones to represent the menace of an all-powerful global empire. “Criminal Intents” grafts an '80s-metal vibe to EBM synth leads and whips up the energy with rousing chorus war cries, and the busy beats and sweeping power-chords of “Neuromantics” revisit the band's familiar theme of technology as a new form of emotional expression.

The dark piano line and the sorrowful but defiant vocals of “Outlaw Thrones” signal a dark, pensive turn as the album's story arc resolves itself, and the grandiose but tension-filled layers of “The World Machine” suggest that there are still more challenges ahead for the cyber-heroes of this tale... as confirmed in the tragically romantic “It's For You,” an acoustic-guitar-led ballad which ends the album with a faint, humanistic glimmer of hope – despite apparently being sung from the perspective of a doomed character awaiting his death.

Even in its more uplifting moments, 21st Century Slave is still a pretty dark affair, and as I mentioned this should come as no surprise to Dope Stars' fans. But it's also charged with a real sense of urgency, which helps to bring home its message: “Free the energy. Free the information.” It's surprisingly hopeful-sounding for a band that spends most of its time exploring the dark corners of technology... and reminds us that a purely electronic medium, with the right artist at the helm fusing organic with machine, can be a raw and powerful form of human expression.