Album Review: THE ATLAS MOTH Coma Noir
If you’ve been to a show in the last eight to ten years, chances are The Atlas Moth has probably been in one of the opening slots. The Chicago-based psychedelic stoner/sludge band—or whatever your favorite equivalent of slow, atmospheric, and heavy is—may hail from one particular side of the train tracks; they are fortunate enough to tour with a wide variety of artists. A short list includes Between the Buried and Me, Devin Townsend, and Boris. However, the list goes on and it doesn’t even speak to their headlining gigs.
Maybe it’s a culmination of sounds that emanate from those headliners they toured with that makes Coma Noir such a stunning example of musical growth. Maybe it was their subsequent break following the relentless support of The Old Believer. One could also posit the addition of Broken Hope drummer Mike Miczek or Stavros Giannopoulos’ (guitars/vocals) obsession with Metallica are the reasons. Most likely, it is a combination of all of these factors that made The Atlas Moth mature like fine wine.
Coma Noir, the band's fourth full-length album, is a stunning recording front-to-back. Holistically speaking, the elemental foundations of The Atlas Moth have greatly improved. Having Miczek in the role of a rhythmic backstop contributes a generous uptick in drumming quality. He’s a titanium rod—giving songs a pliable yet sturdy backbone. Miczek employs tempo variance, metronomic time-keeping, and an arsenal of drum patterns that move and shift a track's overall feel. Additionally, the contrast of Giannopoulos’ scathing harshness and David Kush’s (guitars/vocals) smokier, almost crooning delivery make for an intriguing contrariety. Producer Sanford Parker harnesses the multiple strata of instrumentation—three guitars, bass, keyboards—making sure each strain has its moments. No one sound dominates or overpowers. It’s almost like everyone plays in a velvet-and-blood soaked pocket until it’s time for a melodic, harmonic or solo spotlight.
Coma Noir sounds rich, lush, and clean while maintaining a cantankerous and irascible air. Imagine an armada of Woodstock hippies—led by sergeant-in-arms Leonard Cohen—on an orderly bender fueled by barbiturates, filter-less cigarillos, and bathtub gin. The album conceptually and thematically follows a partially autobiographical story Giannopoulos wrote about a film noir-era cult. The combined sensibility at work on the band’s fourth album is well-worn and time-honored. One of light versus dark, good versus evil, or Ulrich versus Mustaine contrasts. It's this puzzle piece The Atlas Moth work to an exalted end.
The title track introduces chugging slices of alternate picking mastery that dance on a tightrope between the commercial greats of American thrash and death metal. They butt heads before combining in a surprisingly catchy and almost sing-a-long chorus. Miczek’s kick drums paint within the defined lines drawn by the pedaling guitars with textbook precision. All while affirming that none of the song's supple feel suffers. The title track's machine gun bridge stages a spidery, flowing guitar/key conglomerate melody to kick off the song’s second half. It is on an anthemic level comparable to Metallica’s “One.” This is all before the chanting refrain kicks in. No fucking shit here, people.
“Last Transmission From the Late, Great Planet Earth” (one of the best song titles of recent memory) mixes brief dalliances with an open stance, alt/Brit-rock chord structures. A drill press riff plays with slight tempo adjustments in a way most bands of this ilk avoid. The mid-point reminds of a controlled, slowed take on '90s metallic hardcore before a seamless twist into the song’s final 75 seconds. Its stacked guitars and industrialized keyboard wash that velvet gloves’ Fear Factory’s Demanufacture into Metallica’s classic instrumentals. It is a sublimely soaring sequence that exists as an engaging counterpoint to the rest of the song. One could argue it as the most gorgeous pieces of music you’ve heard for a while.
“Galactic Brain” is a sultry spin around a maypole with a swampy, Kirk Windstein-inspired crawl. It also highlights the effective contrast between Kush and Giannopoulos’ vocal styles and how they work together. It too makes one wonder how Giannopoulos can continue to pull off that tensile, high-pitched screech and not have his vocal chords covered in weeping lesions. The manner in which they swing “Actual Human Blood” between an atonal/chromatic ground ‘n’ pound to a riff/melody combination that has the feel of progressive punk rock is fluid and masterful. “Furious Gold” spills a gloomier mood. One with a more despondent sensibility via spacious riffs, fewer layers, and more charged vocal performances. “The Frozen Crown” teems with a confident, mid-paced strut. A new-wave keyboard riff highlights a section that sounds like royal blood coursing through the veins of the band.
All in all, Coma Noir is easily the crowning jewel of The Atlas Moth discography. The album teems with strengths and examples of how different, antithetical elements weave into a crushing totality without sounding disjointed and directionally frazzled. The only hope is that in today’s crowded musical landscape—where attention is fleeting even towards the most involved creative efforts—Coma Noir gets lavished with the attention it deserves.