While its name indicates a self-declared massiveness, there’s really nothing that big about I, Colossus, the eponymous debut from Minneapolis-based wunderkind Matthew Sandstedt and his band. A quick glance at the liner notes reveals the undemocratic nature of Sandstedt’s ensemble (he writes, produces and plays just about everything), and that creative control allows for a focused, singular sound with none of the musical attributes the word “colossus” might connote – no thrashing guitars, thunderous drums, earthshaking bass or walls of harmony.

Kelly Fraser
(COURTESY OF AFTERNOON)

Instead, I, Colossus relies heavily on electronic effects, meaning the traditional guitars and drums of Sandstedt’s “bandmates” routinely sit in second-chair deference to his synths and drum machine. The guitars do contribute the occasional arpeggio or rhythm part, but they are texture, not backbone, preserving the streamlined electronica attitude. The hallmark of I, Colossus‘s sound is Sandstedt’s uber-weird voice. It’s uncommonly high for a man, but it isn’t falsetto; it sounds strangely synthetic, but seemingly without the use of vocoders. Imagine the bionic love child of a three-way between Grandaddy’s Jason Lytle, the Pixies’ Kim Deal and a computer.

The disembodied voice and effects give the music an altogether robotic ambience, albeit with enough direction to still bear resemblance to rock structure. At their most up-tempo moments, the tunes beam forward, propelled by their own digital compression. Like voltage shooting through a conduit, they might be called one-dimensional, a label that would fit comfortably if their electronic bursts and swirls didn’t render them so tailor-made for the 2D world of the iTunes visualizer.

Sandstedt is a formally trained musician, and it shows all over the record. He understands how to use his voice (including tracking his own background vocals) and is an obvious whiz on whatever instrument he picks up. Impressive for his first LP, his synthesizers and programmed beats convey a scientific professionalism that noticeably sets them apart from your high school friend’s MIDI experiments.

It’s his songwriting, however, that most reflects his schooled background. When a composer knows the rules of music theory, it can be difficult to forget them, meaning he must adhere to them or intentionally break them. Sandstedt encounters this pitfall. If he sings like a robot, then he writes like one, too, delivering a purposefully unorthodox, over-calculated product with no hint of muse-chasing humanity. Too often, his songs are overwrought with forced chord changes that disorient and shatter continuity. Their contrived nature repels; they can be heard with distance but never absorbed.

From a scientific standpoint, I, Colossus is an unequivocal triumph. The instrumentation is technically impressive and succinct and the compositions themselves would make for compelling theoretical analyses.

But music’s greatest asset is that it is at once both a science and an art. And with that in mind, this disc is merely a half-success. Though it fits perfectly alongside the rest of I, Colossus‘s robotic qualities, the lack of depth and emotion on the album is disappointing. Technology can emulate brains, but, as I, Colossus demonstrates, not heart.

2.5 out of 5 stars.

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