What does a group of mask-wearing anarchists, acclaimed comic artists and an evil CEO named Gasoline Face have in common? Don't answer that.
These dramatic and enigmatic elements are but a few parts behind These Machines Are Winning, the grandest, most colorful music project in Dallas.
Since 2012, Dylan Silvers, Ryan Hartsell and Blake McWhorter, a.k.a. HighTower, have built an ambitious collective of musicians, singers, sound engineers, graphic artists and other talented folks who have released albums, a novel and even a 360-degree virtual reality video.
A good portal into the TMAW universe comes by way of its albums: Defender I in 2012 and KURU and Architect of Decay in 2015. But oh, you want to dive into this love story backdropped by alien technology and greedy corporations? The group's new Slaves for Gods graphic novel descends deeper into Silvers' alternate universe than ever before.
It's heady stuff: TMAW's three new records were designed specifically so fans would listen to the album while reading the book.
For the completist, a limited-edition deluxe box set features hardcovers with three cover designs. The new records vary in style even more than the cover designs do: There's the dark, industrial "cyber-punk" sounds of Slaves for Gods, a Beach Boys-inspired set of tunes titled Teenage LSD, and a 20-track official motion picture score-style soundtrack.
More than two dozen people contributed to the recording of the albums, including musicians from locally beloved groups such as Polyphonic Spree, Tripping Daisy, the Toadies and True Widow. Add to that total the number of collaborators involved in the graphic novel and the VR video for "I'll Make You Bleed," which has seen success in film festivals from Austin to Amsterdam, and the TMAW army numbers over 50 people.
The creation of the four-chapter graphic novel, which has covers designed by accomplished artists who have worked on The Walking Dead, The Crow and All-Star Batman was, not surprisingly, a serious team effort. Writer Jason Godi says that after "Dylan and Ryan created the universe and characters for Slaves for Gods," he would then turn all that into a screenplay to be reviewed by the team and then utilize those notes to turn the screenplay into a comic book script. That script would be sent to interior artist Aaron Minier, who would then adapt the script into comic book form. All told, the creation of the book required a "year of weekly meetings and hot tub sessions," Godi says.
The largeness of the project shouldn't be much of a surprise to anyone who has been paying attention.
As the leader of The Crash that Took Me, a jubilant seven-member art-pop band from a few years ago and as a contributing member of massive choral-rock outfit the Polyphonic Spree, Silvers seems to dig going big with his art.
"On the music side of things, I do love a big wall of sound," he says. The project has required some serious physical risks: "Ryan even had me hanging off the side of the Grand Canyon for over 30 minutes for a time-lapse shot, and we've sent up a weather balloon to the edge of space for 10 seconds of footage."
A few years ago, when this project was only beginning, sinister story lines revolving around the novel's enemy corporation still felt, well, fictional. But that narrative seems more current than ever. The group's initial inspiration came from 9/11.
"When we first started this project, 9/11 was still very much a sore subject, and still is today, but art in many ways should reflect our times," Hartsell says. "Living downtown amongst the skyscrapers is a constant reminder of the visuals that are baked into our cultural retinas of that tragedy. Every time I see an airplane obscured by one of those buildings as they land at Love Field Airport definitely triggers something." He's able to express it through his work.
These Machines Are Winning is set apart from any other band working today, certainly in North Texas, thanks to a glorious sense of ambition. Silvers says he wants to "keep furthering the projects."
"We want to see all of our new ideas come to life," Silvers says.
Also, unsurprisingly, "we love the adventure."
Note, this video contains some NSFW language.