I think I just listened to next year’s Grammy Album of the Year.I know that’s a risky statement but Halo Circus’ Robots and Wranglers is a nuclear-powered musical missileaimed at the heart of our society and ourselves. It is so far out of this world and so deep into our zeitgeist that is hard to see any one catching up. It simultaneously creates and pushes a revolutionary musical envelope that others will be scrambling to fit into. Due for release March 16, its first single,Narcissist, is already making waves, starting with a premiere in Billboard. When the full album comes out those waves will become a tsunami.
Robots and Wranglerswas the product of necessity. Reality intervened at the start of their East Lansing Sessions tour to supported their last album, Bunny. Iraheta and Hager lost their drummer and guitarist – half the band. The husband and wife team had to decide to cancel the tour or continue on as an acoustic duo. They chose to continue, but not as an acoustic act. They incorporated the electronic aspects of the Bunny album into a new sound – not looping in guitars and drums that weren’t there, but something entirely different. This brought Hager’s producer skills to the fore to create a exothermic galaxy for Iraheta to gather energy from and focus into lasers of social commentary, personal exploration and sheer power greater even than in her emotionally exhausting alt rock performances. As Hager told Billboard, “Sometimes what comes out of necessity reminds you of who you are”, and in this case they have found who they are and are completely comfortable with it.
That comfort is an amalgam of the couples’ 50-50 collaboration, a week off in New Mexico to think and percolate new ideas, and 6 years of growth and wisdomsince they started writing Bunny with a full band. It is the also the final shedding of the pop-rock uniform that the American Idolstar machine put on Iraheta after she finished Season 8, a uniform that led to two Billboard–charting albums but ultimately she had to step out of to find herself.
Halo Circus’s music has always critically observed society as it circled inward in personal journeys, but Robots and Wranglers moves from observation to anger and warning. In “Contact” Iraheta tells the truth we all avoid, that our technologies are destroying our humanity:I want you to notice me/Take your eyes off of the screen/Anything for contact/I’d do anything for contact. Songs like “Oh Money “and” Got it Made “lance into society’s boils, powered by anger at common venality and hacker greed:A brand new selfie while you sunbathe/OMG I see your street name/I can steal everything in front of me…Everyone belongs to me. “Commander” laments an imaginary national past touted in campaign slogans,Whatever happened to us manifesting victories/The pride of power of us rewriting our history.
The lance goes deeper and closer to personal bones in the released single “Narcissist”: Here’s the way I run a country/I hate you, but I want you to love me/And don’t you ever stop thinking of me. Interpret it as you will, but this is what we have come to and Iraheta is not afraid to say it.
But not everything is social commentary – it never is with Halo Circus. Iraheta navigates the pain of lonely souls in the Spanish-language “Y Para Que” (“And for what?”), and leaves us wondering in “Pledge of Allegiance” and “Off World” with lines like If you know fear, then you know me. Are they about her or us, or both?Or about something larger?
All of this is done in convention-shattering compositions that construct notes and phrases and sounds which encase and empower with a glistening synthesis of voice, electronics, bass notes and gut-wrenching vocals. Iraheta’s voice can veer from street rap in “Narcissist” to faux cinematic softness in “Commander”, to a truly out of this world fusion of synth sound and vocals in “Pledge of Allegiance”. Every song breaks conventions; every song is an earworm. And every song is precise and razor sharp, thanks to the uncompromising mixing of Craig Bauer.
Iraheta and Hager readily admit that they had to move out of their Bunnycomfort zones in Robots and Wranglers, despite the ease of writing and productionthat took only four months.But innovation is in their blood, from Iraheta’s ground breaking performances to Hager’s willingness to try to new models of tour and promotion. So they didn’t flinch when thetour forced them to present something new to their fans, who are legendary in their love for the band but also who expected familiar songs. The music overcame fans’ skepticism and disappointment at not seeing the old Halo Circus. Word spread, audiences grew, love flowed. Their support allowed the album production to move ahead without the need forthe previous album’s crowd-funding .
Bunny’s Cassandra-truth lyrics and alt rock sound told us that we dance together, we love together, we hurt together, we are one together regardless of where we came from. It was the music of our time, it was what we grooved to. Robots and Wranglers moves us to the next level – the next galaxy – combining the music we will play with the anger we must feel to survive as a culture and as individuals. Once again Iraheta is Cassandra telling us the truths that may hurt, encased in dopamine-releasing music that demands Replay. The tour to support Robots and Wranglers kicks off in Colorado on March 22 and regardless where it goes from there (dates still being added), it should end on the Grammy stage in Los Angles next January.