Atheist – Jupiter
Many people consider the early nineties the heyday for death metal. Though shows weren’t financially supported by big name sponsors, promoted vigorously using the internet, or headlined by bands that had a long history and a tendency to fill venues in every city they visited, the art of crafting devastating music (be it cerebrally or physically) was at its creative peak. Like any time period, there were faces in the crowd that were lost to the changing times, but there were some that found a niche in the foundation of metal that would influence those who followed and carve a name for themselves in history. The darker side of sonic exploration was firing on all cylinders worldwide. The glory days of re-hashed thrash bands was either ending, or they were searching for a unique sound. Bands like Morbid Angel, Death, and Sepultura had turned a new leaf, and bands were rushing to be the first to capitalize on a new sound. Suffocation was busy in New York creating chromatic percussion driven tunes with the hostility and intensity of a jackhammer who had just got out of an unhealthy relationship. Entombed was busy building a legendary Scandinavian guitar tone that was set to “eardrum paralysis” on the popular Boss distortion pedal of the day. Morbid Angel was experimenting with dark atmospheres and grooves that burned themselves into your cerebrum like seeing your grandma naked.
Despite being released into a hyperactive counterculture of metalheads finding their way, when Atheist released Piece of Time, it turned heads and showed a great deal of potential. But when the band went on to release Unquestionable Presence, even those who were aware of the potential of the band didn’t know what to think. It was one of those records where everything just came together. The production was great, especially when you consider the time period. Clear, but layered. At times screeching, but never lacking in punch. And the music was mindblowing. It’s ridiculous to think that at the time this album dropped no one had considered that the loose-fitting “musical spectrum” of both jazz fusion and death could be combined with resilient seams to create a brand of death metal as cerebral as it is punishing, and as groove-laden as it is epic. Even in the most stereotypically metal sections of this record, Atheist managed to fit just enough of that jazz experimentation to make the riff something new and different. Steve Flynn incorporated all kinds of drumming techniques that really hadn’t been used very much at the time. Where Suffocation and other peers opted for a blast beat, even to accompany riffs with odd time signatures, bringing their common eighth note building blocks to the surface, Steve Flynn opted to follow with fragmented drumming that few would have considered “metal” at the time. After Unquestionable Presence, the band broke up, but was still legally obligated to produce another album. The resulting release was Elements, an album loved by many, but still not a “real” Atheist record. Creative input by the band as a whole was limited, if not absent, and the songs were an exploration of the lighter side of the earlier work. Although it was a good record, it didn’t have the character of the two preceding it. Although Unquestionable Presence was not technically the band’s last album, in reality it was a classic that was years ahead of its time that really never received a follow up. Given this history, it is easy to understand why when the band reformed in 2006, and subsequently decided to give it another go, the announcement resulted in a great deal of interest.
From the start, Jupiter has some goliath expectations to meet, especially considering it is going to fall into a market that is currently full of bands that are influenced by the earlier Atheist records, where an occasional jazz interlude is not the most uncommon thing you will hear. From the depths of a similar dilemma a couple years ago, Cynic‘s Traced in Air surfaced as a follow up with a much lighter tone to it than its predecessor. Jupiter is far from following this suit. If anything, the pacing on this album is even more unrelenting than its predecessors. I will get to that later, but first off, the production on this album is a major feat. I’m now convinced that this band is capable of causing lightning to strike in the same place twice. Credit is most certainly due to Jason Suecof, who mixed the album. The production is as twisting and labyrinthine as ever, only more recent developments in recording and mixing equipment and competency (and possibly budget) have manifested themselves as noticeable increases in both clarity and strength. Though nearly twenty years separate these releases, an obvious sense of personality has carried over, and the production on this record takes shits that sound better than the clicky, digital recordings that are filling the market, or those crappy black metal recordings that sound like they were recorded in mono, into a broom box that is inside a metal trashcan. The bass cuts through the mix in all of the right moments, but avoids being overpowering throughout, and the drums and guitar both sound clear and powerful.
The pacing on this album is something that will catch many by surprise. Though the songs tend to leave some space here and there, they are generally solo sections, pauses, palm-muted chromatic riffs (WHAT?) or subtle texture altering passages. On the first listen, I was disappointed at the lack of those dramatic pace and mood altering jazz sections that were unquestionably present in 1991. I still am. Although the new bassist is certainly competent at rounding the sound, the bass tracking tends to embrace the role TOO much, where Roger and Tony would have taken the forefront at least once during the record. Unfortunately the atmospheric, bass-driven, jazzy interludes are non-existent on this record and ultimately remain a part of history. Though you can’t blame the band for letting this dynamic lose its place in their sound (with the death of Roger, and the loss of Tony), it is nonetheless disappointing and an element of their sound that I will miss.
In regard to the riffing on this record, it is at times astounding, and at times below what we have come to expect from these guys. Though not every riff hits as hard, it is clear that the new additions to the band are competent at playing and filling the roles they were recruited to, and the band’s sound is well-rounded for a band that has been unearthed from a long hiatus. The vocals are really the only place where the band is showing their age. Kelly Shaefer is not the youthful soul he was in the early 1990s, and though this isn’t incognito by any means, he still has the ability to deliver a powerful performance. I’ve always been a fan of his raspy, ranged vocals find a comfy crevice somewhere between a shout and narration. I feel like he leaves the door open for a lot of antics and character that many modern metal vocalists are lacking, and his delivery in the past has always been above average (although generally vocalists like this are also prone to having some parts that need to be taken with a grain of salt). Both of these instances are here. You have to admire the guy’s desire to work a couple different keys in a genre that does not ask him to, and at times he sounds as clear and powerful as ever, but there are some pretty indecipherable and goofy sounding mumbles on the record that should have stayed in his smoke shop in Florida. The most notable instance of this is in “Live, and Live Again”, which is the strongest track on the album, making it easy to interpret playfully and overlook. The song is still fun even if he sounds like a mixture of Mr. T and J. Geils from the live intro to “Must’ve Got Lost” at this point. Some of the lyrical content seems to be pretty suspect, but I don’t have a lyric sheet, so judgment should be reserved for when we all BUY THE RECORD AND READ ALONG. Something about saying “First and second and third person” seems like it can’t fit into an intelligent narrative, although even earlier Atheist had goofball moments on their otherwise above average lyric sheet. (Also, I’m giddy with curiosity to read “Faux King Christ”).
“Second to Sun” is a great track to start the album off with, immediately familiarizing (or reintroducing) the listener to some staple Atheist idioms. The first passage sounds like it would’ve had a place on the preceding records, and many riffs throughout the song have a similar taste to them. It took me a couple listens to appreciate this song, but I can see why they chose to release it first; it gives the unfulfilled Atheist listener a taste of what they’ve been waiting for. In fact, the first four songs on the album live up to this goal and sound very much like a continuation of sorts. There are some passages that are new to the Atheist sound, but they generally fit well into the mix and give the impression of progression, rather than detracting from the experience. I’d go as far as saying that if the first four tracks off of this album were released as an extended play, the majority of the listening audience would agree that this more than a worthy addition to the Atheist catalogue.
Another standout track, and one that uses this formula well is the aforementioned “Live, and Live Again”, which sounds more genuine for this time period, because of its reluctance to use obvious established Atheist-isms. The song begins with a thick tremolo miasma that is soon dissipated by a technical riff that establishes a repeating rhythm that outlasts the riff itself. From here, the tremolo riffs takes on two further incarnations, one as a textured, underlying second guitar part, and the other as a chorus later in the song and is quite effective in both roles. This is an example of the songwriting that made the band noteworthy in the first place applied to material that is not just rehashed ideas from their earlier work, and it is a good thing to see on a band’s first record after a reunion. That said, there is a riff in this song that could only be written by this band, and it was met by an indescribable smile the first time I heard it.
The song structure throughout the album is very elaborate, with an overall good sense of repetition for effect, and a handful of moving parts in each song, resulting in a multiple transitions from repeated riffs which allow the songs to grow on a solid foundation. This shouldn’t be surprising. The only negative side effect of this is that when a song has a motif that fails to connect with the listener, it is likely that it will be repeated a number of times in the song and some of the end of the record might bring the overall excellent sense of discretion and taste that the band has become famous for into question. Though you may not be a huge fan of the stylistic approach to these songs, it is hard to complain of a lack of effort, as these songs are still well crafted.
Though there is a very obvious return to form in some of the earlier tracks on the album, by the closing moments it becomes obvious that they have absorbed some influences of their own this time around, for better or for worse; Better being the palm muted slam riffs that seem to emerge out of nowhere spontaneously (though giving away their locations might dampen the effect, so I will refrain from doing so); Worse being the Slayer B-Side riff in “Tortoise the Titan”. There are also some instances where the band does some exploring that doesn’t sound like it comes from a specific external source. There are some pretty big transitions and unexpected passages that will rely on the listener’s personal preference that I won’t address here. It is my personal opinion that the album starts stronger and more collected than it ends, but I find that the second half is a bit more open-ended and may contain some of your favorite and most of your least favorite parts of the album. ”Tortoise the Titan” is my least favorite song on the album, and it seems to lack an overall sense of direction both compositionally, and stylistically. This sense of experimentation has some positive outcomes in “When the Beast”, but it is still not without its damper moments. It seems like the creative process this time around was less selective and filtered, and although I am not always happy with the outcome, it keeps things interesting and fresh, which is admirable for a comeback record. Though not everyone is going to love this record all the way through, I think everyone is going to enjoy at least a couple songs from it a lot, and it definitely has some really strong moments. Though it could benefit from some hedgetrimming, Jupiter is worth giving multiple listens, even if you do not like it on the first listen. In typical Atheist fashion, there are enough twists and turns that you are bound to miss out on something your first time through, and a couple of these songs have great replay value.