|Artwork by Larson Kilstrom|
Atma Weapon is a self-described progressive metal band from North Carolina. They apparently take their name from a big baddie in Final Fantasy VI, but the only thing I know about the Final Fantasy series of games is that one of my neighbors in college played one or more of them obsessively. I could probably track him down on Facebook and get an exhaustive critical analysis, but let's stick to the music instead.
Progressive metal is a fair label, but I think more than anything, this is honest-to-goodness hard rock of a quality we don't see much these days. If there were any justice in the world, bands like Nickelback would stop terrorizing our fragile planet and be replaced with more bands like Atma Weapon. That's not to say it's bland, but rather it occupies a middle ground on the rock spectrum that hasn't featured much to get excited about for a while. The centerpiece of Atma Weapon's Dark Tower album is a six-song suite of sorts, titled simply "Dark Tower I-VI." It's a very cohesive unit, almost like a mini-symphony, with lots of groovy melodic themes recurring throughout. The lyrics are, for the most part, cleanly sung, with a few blackish growls sprinkled throughout. The timbre of Mick Armstrong's voice reminds me a bit of the late, great Jeff Buckley, and I mean that as high praise. Metal fans (myself included) can be a picky lot about clean singing, but unless it gives you some kind of Pavlovian rage response, I'd recommend you give this a chance anyway. I really like Armstrong's harsh vocals and wouldn't have minded more of them, but his clean voice is also very good, and I really loved some of the little vocal harmonies here and there, like midway through "Dark Tower II." There are also bucket-loads of groovy, hard-rock guitar riffs, and these are backed by a solid-as-granite rhythm section. The riffs get plenty of space on their own--in fact, "Dark Tower IV" is a proper instrumental-only showcase--but there's still a nice balance throughout the "Dark Tower" tracks. This isn't a guitar album with vocals slapped on top, nor is it just a bunch of backing tracks for the vocals.
If there's a weak spot on the album, it comes with the final two tracks, which at least in name are not related to the "Dark Tower" suite. "Dark Dreamer" is a serviceable rocker and fits in well enough with the mood of the "Dark Tower" songs, but the album's closer, "Miss Misery," doesn’t work well. At over 8 minutes, it's one of the longest tracks on the album, it's repetitive, and as you might guess from the winking, radio-friendly song title, it leans dangerously close to the generic hard rock I slammed earlier. The credits list a co-writer who's not a current member of the band, so it's possible that's why it stands out so much. I don't want to beat them up too much over what feels like a bonus track to pad out the running length, but I think they would have been better off leaving this as a concept-album only. Those six "Dark Tower" songs really feel like one 30-minute-long musical idea that ebbs and flows, but never drags. You're not going to hear anything here that's going to blow the top off your head off, but I think of these songs as what you might get from an old-fashioned, master craftsman. I keep thinking of a traditional, hand-crafted watch. The technology inside may be the same works that have been in watches for quite some time, but what makes a piece like that stand out is the brilliant skill and attention to detail brought to bear, and that's the kind of creation that Atma Weapon has show they can deliver with the "Dark Tower" songs.
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