Album Review: 'Designed to Break' by Breathers


We live in a cacophony of digital noise. Our days spent bent like Narcissus into our smartphones anxiously keeping up with friends, strangers, brands. Modern day life is a constant paradox of feeling inextricably entwined with the world while feeling entirely detached and isolated from it all.  

And no one expresses this better than local synth-pop trio Breathers.

“CALL ME, PAIN!”, declares singer and lyricist T. Lee Guneselman on the group’s debut full-length release Designed to Break. Featuring Guneselman and Jake Thomson on synths and vocals with Mike Netland on drums and sequencing, the trio’s new work is a dystopic yet startlingly familiar dive into our connections with the outside world and our own psyche. Expanding on ideas presented on their first release Transitions, Breathers continue to toy with typical musical hooks and structures with unnerving results.

Take “1-800-PAIN” one of the lead singles from the record. Driven by a deceptively catchy dial-tone hook, Guneselman channels seedy telemarketers as he tells of a crisis hotline led by the aptly named Dr. Pain. The tune builds into frenetic bursts of noise and bass as Guneselman calls out for some sort of connection on the other end of the line. “When I’m alone, I touch buttons on my machines,” sings Gunselman on the flipside single “Only Operator.” Full of clangy synth effects and a jingle-esque melody, the song takes place with the narrator on the other end of the line — disconnected from reality and left to their own devices.

One gets a sense that the band is reaching for something or trying to achieve some sort of human connection amidst their electronic soundscape. “Mariner’s Song” on the album deals with this motif by putting the listener right there with the narrator on a sea voyage to nowhere. “It has felt like years since I’ve really got to see you,” sings Guneselman. “I’m the human that you’ve known before.” It’s a song that packages feelings of aimless wandering and isolation through the metaphor of traveling at sea.

There are hints of that human connection however on “Low in the Sky,” the sunniest track on the album. Ornamented with glossy fills and a spine-tingling chorus, the narrator finally feels some sort of connection when experiencing the warmth of the sun. It’s entirely escapism — one can only handle so much of the cold sensation of a computer or cell-phone. Contrasted with the rest of the album, “Low in the Sky” is a thrilling moment where hope is possible if we actually connect with our basest sensations.

Sonically and emotionally, Designed to Break is miles away from their debut Transitions. It’s an album full of contradictions desperately reaching for a median but never quite getting there. The production, credits to Sumner Jones, elevates the group’s sound to become an all-encompassing listening experience. Breathers, with tireless work and experimentation, have somehow humanized the synthesizer to capture a wide range of emotions. Amongst our cacophony of digital noise, Designed to Break brings vulnerability, honesty, and a hope that there is something more to this jumbled, fractured life.