When I reviewed part one of this two-album concept back in 2015, my expectation of the second volume was that it would tie closely back to the first installment – not so much as a sequel, but as the second half of a comprehensive whole. In that regard, Volume 0 does not disappoint: instrumental reprisals of Volume 1 material recur throughout the album’s scope, and the concept material further advances the themes of part one. By itself, Ones & Zeroes: Volume 0 – 3RDegree’s sixth studio album – is an impressive representation of the band’s own evolution as songwriters and musicians.
The continuing master lineup for 3RDegree remains George Dobbs (vocals, keys, percussion, violin), Rob Pashman (bass, keys, vocals), Patrick Kliesch (guitars, keys, vocals), Robert Durham (drums, percussion), Eric Pseja (guitars, vocals), and Bryan Zeigler (guitars, vocals). Some additional credits include Aaron Nobel for drums on “Logical Conclusion”; Sheuh-Li Ong for theremin on “Olympia”; Moorea Dickason for co-lead vocals on “Unintended Consequence”; Jay Friedman for additional violin on “Click Farm”; Ava Penelope Pashman for spoken voice on “Perfect Babies”; and Alexandre Kouznetsov for the cover art. As with previous 3RDegree albums, these songs were crafted separately by the band members, shared via dropbox and the like, and later fully fleshed in-person to complete the process.
Whereas Volume 1 of the Ones & Zeroes story focused primarily on the digital future of humanity – backing up memories and personalities into a “digital mausoleum” of cloud-based storage, embodied in the fictional Valhalla Biotech Corporation – Volume 0 expands further into advanced AI, DNA and gene modification, and the bio/technical advancement of the human race. As with the previous installment, the sci-fi elements of these loosely connected stories are rendered believable by the fact that humanity currently possesses much of the technology necessary to pursue these avenues of scientific research. Fans of the show Black Mirror and philosophers like Ray Kurzweil will especially appreciate these futuristic themes and the band’s unique take on transhumanism.
The album opens with the instrumental “Re1nstall_0verture,” a piece that cites material from Volume 1 and also introduces new themes for Volume 0. The track appropriately transitions into “Connecting” without a seam. This second piece is rich with guitar harmonics and ominous keys, thematically concerned with the artificial connections between human beings sheltered behind screens and firewalls. One of the album’s most poignant lyrics recurs here, in the opening eight minutes of Volume 0: “Do you know the way to that place / Where they still touch and talk and feel and breathe?”
The album again transitions seamlessly to the next track, “Olympia,” a song that describes the perfect AI companion, a sentient robot with a “cutting-edge,” “pliable polymer frame.” However, as the protagonist of the piece quickly comes to realize, the one who is truly pliable is himself: the automaton “would not be my toy / I’d be her human being.” While alarming at first, this reversal of man and machine becomes an almost natural indoctrination. As a side note, the name “Olympia” is a subtle shift from some of the Norse themes of Volume 1 (i.e. “Valhalla”) to another mythological image from Greek culture, a conscious decision by the band to continue tying man’s technological pursuits to the ancient philosophies that still inspire our race’s forward progress.
The verses to “The Future Doesn’t Need You” are gentle and ethereal, predominantly acoustic guitar that gradually builds to full orchestration. The future, this song proclaims, is a place where inevitable progress leaves behind those who don’t possess “transcendent” minds: “Unless you are living inside of my cloud, I couldn’t even help you if I wanted to now because / The future doesn’t need you at all.” Some great guitar work bridges the final refrain to a verse tag and an extended outro.
The shortest track on the record, “Unintended Consequence,” is also one of its most memorable compositions. Steady acoustic guitar, backed by a wash of strings, electric guitar, and synth pads, modulate to plodding bass and steady instrumentation. The doubled male/female vocal work adds a strong human-race element, that mankind as a whole has not necessarily evolved with its technological advancements, but arrogantly constructed its own roadblocks: “I’m an unintended consequence / The result of all your overconfidence.” The speaker here could be the AI figure of Olympia, or perhaps more broadly represents all human technological achievement. Either way, there is something precarious about all of our exploits, good intentions undermined by selfishness, short-sightedness, and a failure to truly count the cost.
“Perfect Babies” pursues a theme begun on Volume 1 – that is, the human pursuit of advancement, eliminating genetic flaws and building a better future for the human race. This includes building “brochure babies” and eliminating “undesirables” – modifying humanity at cellular levels, a practice that points fingers at eugenics, at plastic surgery, and even the medical realm’s preoccupation with eliminating defects and diseases at all costs. Eerily, a child’s voice (Rob’s daughter Ava) reads from Nietzsche to conclude the track: “Man is a rope tied between beast and overman. A rope over an abyss. What is great in man, is that he is a bridge and not an end. What can be loved in man is that he is an overture, and a going under.”
“Logical Conclusion” opens with a brief theological pondering on God creating man in His image, then moves in and out of some extended instrumental segments interspersed with verses. I particularly love this piece, from its melodic components and layered instrumentation to the way the composition develops its anthropological posits, from its subtle citations of “The Best and Brightest” from Volume 1 to its self-critical lyrics that genuinely wrestle with the wisdom of denying solutions to humanity’s apparent needs – solutions that might “circumvent nature’s laws,” but that are also just around the corner.
The 15-minute epic, “Click Away!”, has a particularly Floydian vibe throughout, moving through some extended dreamlike segments. Three major subdivisions separate this piece: “Positive Feedback Loop (One Click Away),” “Click Farm,” and “Only Listen to This Section if You Truly Want Wealth and Security.” One of my favorite compositions on Volume 0, this piece does a lot to bridge backward to the first installment of Ones & Zeroes, modifying one of my favorite lyrics from Volume 1 (“they’re working on an algorithm guaranteed to subsidize my flaws”) as well as transposing a key musical quote from “We Regret to Inform You” for the third and final section of this epic. As a whole, “Click Away!” delves into the modern trends of social media and advertising – where companies generate revenue by replacing human employees with bots and programs – and also criticizes the artificial inflation of human ego by our emotional and financial obsession with page hits, likes, shares, and subscriptions.
The ultimate “Ones & Zeros” finale boils down the overarching theme to a series of either/or comparisons: the past or the future, progress or regression, a “cell or a circuit,” “the end or the start.” The evaluation process that has pervaded the entire Ones & Zeroes story has questioned each of these things in detail. Naturally, there is some really cool citation back to Volume 1 material for this final piece, as well as some great instrumental/vocal parodying.
Volume 0 appropriately transcends the first installment of the Ones & Zeroes duology, but also owes much of its foundation to its predecessor. 3RDegree demonstrate a keen awareness of their own material and utilize it in powerful ways, exploring and expanding the same musical and lyrical themes without becoming redundant. Together, the two Ones & Zeroes albums are a vast, comprehensive whole, masterfully crafted and inextricably connected – a truly immersive musical experience. While you can listen to the second installment by itself, it is greatly enhanced by the context of the first. A fantastic collection of writing, Volume Zero is a new watermark for an underrated band that continues to prove its relevance in the modern progressive rock community, and impressively defies the geographical limitations of its members.
3RDegree commence a mini, east-coast U.S. tour for the month of May beginning tonight in New York City.
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