New traditionalists

Mar 8, 2000 at 12:00 am

"Has the future happened yet?" asks electronic duo Year of the Robot in the technopop tune "Retina of Silicon." Judging by the song’s robotic tones and syncopated synth machinations, it’s a moot question. Along with an unaligned group of such Michigan musicians as Adult., Godzuki, Ron of Japan, the W-Vibe, C3, 4FR, and the various button-pushers and knob-twiddlers of a mysterious organization calling itself the Detroit Electronica Coalition, Year of the Robot explores the early years of synth-pop with a decidedly Year 2000 take. As Yearling Doug Shimmin, who started the band with Colton Weatherston about a year ago, explains, "It’s been slowly evolving. When we first started, we had these very minimal backing tracks, where we did a lot of improvisation."

Since then, they’ve ensconced themselves in the studio, working on perfectly executed examples of techno-pop like "Operating System," with its Eno-esque choruses, and "Controller," a dance-beat collage that nods to modern electronica. Occasionally, they’ve emerged for a live performance, exposing audiences to their retro-futurist pop stylings. In a way, they’re picking up where techno started out and driving backwards. As Weatherston says, "We use a lot of the elements of the sound of Detroit techno, but we’re definitely putting our own spin on it."

It’s a vertiginous spin that follows the paths of past conceptions of the future of sound: early electro, the new romantics, even some of the synth-pop infiltrations of the Top 40. Going back beyond Kraftwerk, Weatherston mentions the Beach Boys, no strangers to the pursuit of pop perfection. Shimmin has even coined a humorous and appropriate moniker for Year of the Robot’s novel approach to the traditions of the electro-pop genre: Brand New Wave.

As a former member of the Immigrant Suns, Shimmin is no stranger to notions of tradition in music. As he concludes, "I came from a band that played traditional songs that were set in the 1700s and 1800s. Now, Colton and I are traditionalists, but based on music from 1978 to 1984. I mean, we’re not afraid of the Thompson Twins."