Thoughts Detecting Machines is the solo project of Rick Valentin, who has spent decades touring and recording with Poster Children among other projects. His latest release entitled That Was the Year That Wasn’t was released on the first day of the new year 2021 and doesn’t shy away from showing its inspiration on its sleeve. 2020 was a weird year of isolation for all of us, and in Valentin’s case that meant hunkering down with his guitar and laptop to produce this meaty 16-track collection.
This album has a good theme of duality running through it, with half-instrumentals and half songs, an even mix of guitar and electronica and a blend of the emotional and robotic comprises the entirety of That Was the Year that Wasn’t. Valentin’s versatility and free approach to making artful indie rock is one that’s similar to Guided by Voices. Bold and avant-garde enough to be thought-provoking, but still made with pop sensibilities in mind, making it a fun and engaging listen. All in all a record that’s very easy to recommend.
“Legal High” opens the record with a theatrical synth pop tune that’s also a tongue-in-cheek commentary on the wide array of abusable substances we can easily acquire: “Give it a try! It’s a natural high.”
“Offline” comes with a completely electronic pallet, emulating the computer beeps and boops of its subject. But even with its mechanical harmonies, Valentin sings in a deeply emotional way, suggesting that going offline is a juxtaposition of finally ending a relationship: “Memories we shared become corrupt / Free up some space / erase the ghost of love.”
Even though this record is a reflection on a year full of hardships, Valentin still manages to add levity and hope to his songs. “Heart + Hands” celebrates the opportunity of being with your loved ones while we’re all required to stay home. “Don’t Be Shy” is a song full of hope that urges you to come out of your shell and not to deny who you are. Both tracks feature soaring melodies that showcase Valentin’s ability to effortlessly mix things up as the emotions of the song dictates.
Speaking of variety, the instrumentals in this album also showcases Valentin’s prowess in crafting interesting soundscapes. “Fievel” uses synths to emulate a neon retro-futuristic atmosphere complete with police sirens wailing away. “Octave Chanute” is a groovy disco dance club electro track while “Slacktivist” has a surprisingly smooth and serene synths and string work despite its touchy title.
That Was The Year That Wasn’t shows us that it wasn’t all that bad. 2020 has provided us with a good opportunity to work on our own craft and evaluate the things that matter the most in our life. For Thoughts Detecting Machines, this stellar album is a testament to that.