Since roaring back to life with 2008’s Narrow-Caster, 3rDegree has gone from strength to strength. Their 2012 effort, The Long Division, is one of my favorite albums. Does Ones and Zeroes: Volume 1 measure up and keep pushing the band forward? It’s too early to tell, but it keeps revealing great things on every listen.
The Long Division had a strong theme running through lots of it, but Ones and Zeroes goes a step further by being a full on concept album (part one of at least two, if I remember correctly). The concept revolves around a shady corporation, Valhalla Biotech, that sells a variety of life extension technology. As set forth in the band’s press release, the album “isn’t so much science fiction as it is a futurist album, expounding upon current trends in technology and leading them to their logical conclusion.” As regular readers know, just saying something isn’t science fiction doesn’t make it so. Ones and Zeroes is as sci-fi as they come, using advances in technology to explore our own humanity.
On the album that deals mostly with the question of what it means to be human? More particularly, what does it mean to be alive? If, as we hear over and over again, “life is needing more,” then the ultimate goal is to extend life forever. Along the way Valhalla goes from stocking “elixir centers” that extend “expiration dates” to realizing the dream of Ray Kurzweil – the uploading of the human mind into a computer where it could, theoretically, live forever.
Along the way, the band explores the various issues that would arise in this situation. There’s concern that this expensive tech will further class divides (there’s a voice over about the world’s oldest man watching his son die of old age) along with the idea that this might all be allowed under the theory that somebody will get there eventually (the Chinese, most likely), so “we” (whoever “we” are) might as well get there first. Most hilariously, the idea of a megacorp in charge of all this leads to the fact that, in “Life at All Cost,” the company tries to sell upgrades while peeling apart and scanning a client’s brain.
All in all, I get a strong Blade Runner vibe from Ones and Zeroes. Valhalla reminds me a bit of the Tyrell Corporation, whose motto, after all, was “More Human Than Human.” Is that where we are at the end of Volume 1? Seems that way. In addition, the need for more life echoes the demand of replicant Roy Batty that he “wants more life” as he kills his creator. So the concept has a lot of areas to explore and I’m sure I haven’t touched them all (I’m notoriously bad at sussing out album concepts).
But this is an album after all and none of that matters if the music is subpar.
Good thing that the music is up to 3rDegree’s usual high standards. The band has always walked a fine line between melodic accessibility and prog complexity, a mixture they’ve refined over the years. The result is a group of tunes that are instantly appealing but reveal depth and interesting details upon further listens. Believe me, once you’ve heard “This Is the Future” it will stick in your head (I dare you not to sing the backup vocals in the chorus!). Not to mention it makes the cheery yet disturbing voice overs of “We Regret to Inform You” go down easy!
If you look at the credits you’ll see no fewer than three guitarists were involved on this album. Lest you fear it’s an onslaught of power chords and shredding six strings, they’re actually fairly restrained. In fact, I’m not sure all three of them are brought to bear on any one track. There are some nice acoustic spots and George Dobbs gets plenty of room to lay out some nice synth solos.
There’s nothing on Ones and Zeroes that jumps out at me the way a few tracks did on The Long Division. But it works better as a whole, as befits a concept album. It’s a mess of awfully good music wrapped around an interesting idea. And the best thing? It’s only the first part!