You probably know LA rockers AWOLNATION from their hit 2011 single “Sail”… but what if they had never released it? That was the question on frontman Aaron Bruno’s mind when he started writing Angel Miners & The Lightning Riders, the band’s fourth LP. “I wanted to act as if I had no success before and really prove myself all over again,” he told Billboard. The result is an album that blends the electronic energy of Megalithic Symphony and Run and the soul and sincerity of Here Come the Runts, with some surprises along the way.
AWOLNATION has a knack for choosing stellar first tracks, and on Angel Miners & The Lightning Riders, they keep up the tradition. “The Best” has all the electric tension of an anime theme song; it’s fast-paced, aspirational, inspirational. “I just wanna be the… best!”, Bruno repeats in the chorus. Every time, the dun-dun of Zach Irons’ guitar punctuates his words like an exclamation point. The punchy single will definitely make its way onto plenty of workout playlists.
“Slam (Angel Miners)” is a bit more avant-garde, as evidenced by its animated, alien-themed music video. What are “angel miners,” you ask? According to an interview Bruno conducted with Guitar.com, they’re “fictitious characters” who personify evil, locked in a perpetual battle with the morally upright “lightning riders.” The song’s verses, uttered in a fashion that evokes spoken word poetry, don’t reveal much else about the concept, but they’re fascinating nonetheless. “Me and my angel/Dancing on a ship/Party with the vultures/We can coexist,” Bruno intones over an infectious beat. His language may be cryptic, but it’s evocative. When he sings, “Rain, rain, blurry eyes,” in the chorus, you can almost see him standing on a precipice, shouting into a stormy sky.
“Mayday!!! Fiesta Fever” features the record’s first guest star: Alex Ebert. Given his past with Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros, one might expect the song to have a folksier vibe, in the style of Here Come the Runts. Instead, it’s a danceable rock track that’s chaotic enough to warrant all three of the exclamation points in its title. “All I wanna do is play rock and roll, play rock and roll at a disco party,” Bruno starts, calling to mind the jubilant ethos of Skrillex’s “Rock N’ Roll (Will Take You To The Mountain)” without the aid of a single dubstep sound. When quarantine season is over, this one’ll surely stir up concert crowds.
The rest of the album moves a bit more slowly, but it still boasts plenty of highlights. “California Halo Blue” is more than just a welcome addition to the treasure trove of songs about the Golden State—it’s a sober reflection on the 2018 Woolsey Fires, which destroyed Bruno’s recording studio. Backing vocalists sing the chorus an octave up, giving the song a gorgeous ethereal feel. “Pacific Coast Highway in the Movies,” the second West Coast anthem on the album, deals with a more quotidian crisis: heartbreak. Rivers Cuomo of Weezer joins the band here, sounding as brooding as ever. The ballad’s got a charming old-school feel; in fact, it’s not hard to imagine an alternate arrangement of it as a doo-wop song. When Cuomo and Bruno harmonize in the song’s finale, singing “Do you belong?”, something magical happens; after all, what California dreamer hasn’t stared into the stars and asked the same question?
The album ends with a strange, but memorable pairing: “Half Italian” and “I’m a Wreck.” The former shows Bruno shouting over the plunking of piano keys, trying to exorcise his inner demons. Sometimes he’s vulnerable: “I’m emotional, maybe too emotional/But I love you.” Other times, he takes on a flippant tone: “I’m sorry, man/God darn it, gosh damn.” “I’m a Wreck” is just as earnest as its title suggests. The song starts simply: no synths, no beats, just soft vocals and a guitar. “I am in my head forevermore/I am in my head,” Bruno chants, contemplative. Then cinematic strings usher in a crescendo, and he’s singing about a tender moment with a lover in a park… but the track doesn’t end there. Drums pound as he begins a new refrain: “Fake motherfucker! You know who you are!” When the noise dies down, he proclaims, “Angel Miners and the Lightning Riders!” as if taking a bow at the end of a show.
Who wins the mythical war? It’s unclear—but either way, it’s evident that AWOLNATION is refusing to stay stagnant. Let’s hope they continue to play with new sounds, structures, and styles as they rock into their second decade.