90’s Score: 7/10
2020 Score: 9.5/10
The 90’s were an interesting time for discovering music. The internet was a wealth of information, but streaming sites weren’t around yet and high speed DSL was still expensive, so hearing new bands usually meant research and taking a leap of faith. Luckily, the era also birthed heavily influential emo bands like Mineral, Knapsack, and Christie Front Drive. It was typically a safe bet to find other bands you would like by tracing lineage to those three groups by labelmates, tourmates, or bands featuring ex-members, so when they all broke up, I was eager to follow the vocalists to their new projects. Mineral’s Chris Simpson went on to form The Gloria Record and Blair Shehan from Knapsack founded The Jealous sound, bands that differed from, but were still playing in the same sandbox of their former projects. Christie Front Drive’s Eric Richter however was clearly playing in a new park altogether with his new group Antarctica.
I had anticipated that the double CD for 81:03 was to be a collection of longer, drawn out, guitar based emotive music, much like Christie Front Drive, but the opening seconds of “Absence” proved me wrong as a wave of electronic notes over early new wave style guitar and swelling synth accompaniment came to greet me. The difference between expectations and reality came as quite a shock to the system. It took some time to overcome and give this release the attention it deserved. Once I was able to shed my initial bias against something so different than Christie Front Drive, I felt the hypnotic draw of the music wash over me. By the time I reached the fourth track, “Return to Omma Dawn,” I was hooked as it’s trance-inducing electric pulse seemed to make all else in mind melt away.
The whole album is a unique marriage of familiar aspects of different genres that should be an obvious match, but I had never heard before or as well done since. A beautiful mix of swelling synthpop met with moody post-punk/new wave guitar melodies while the effects on the vocal tracks give a shoegaze feel. Trance electronica aspects are peppered throughout the entire recording too.
A few complaints could be made about this release, most specifically the length (it’s not just a clever title – this album is 81 minutes and three seconds long) and the reverb-effected, layered vocals which are a little low in the mix. I however, don’t see either of these as flaws. 81:03 contains the last eleven songs they recorded before disbanding, so having all that could be offered before their conclusion is better than the alternative in my opinion. As for the vocals, having them low just adds to the allure. It builds a mystery and intrigue to the lyrical content. In fact, certain interpreted lyrics from “Tower of Silence” helped influence me in writing lyrics for my old band.
Out of my entire music collection, this one stands out as an underrated, virtually unknown gem that deserves far more attention. Few bands have come close to attempting to capture this same sound aside from guitarist/singer/programmer Chris Donohue’s project Ova Looven or their labelmates The National Skyline. It also definitely stands out for the fact that it has been one of the most heavily played albums I own and has never left my regular rotation since 1999. Giving it a more in depth listen once again for this review makes me believe that it will be sure to stay in my rotation for another 20 years to come.
Written by Ted Berger
*Edited by Dominic Abate