Dark Tranquillity - Atoma
Released November 2016
Reviewed 5 February 2017 By DoomMaster
I've never been much into gothenburg metal. Whether it be the angst of the lyrics, the recycled wanky guitar riffs that make all the middle school boys and girls wet, the forced cleans, or the keyboards, it all just sounded too... sweet. I don't mind a bit of commercialized candy bits in my death metal every once in a while but one can only handle so many pixy stick enemas before diabetes sets in and you can't take it anymore. This lack of any real substance leaves me wondering how many of these bands manage to keep a fanbase consisting of anything other than aforementioned middle schoolers looking for their next sugar high. So why the hell am I picking a gothenburg album as my best of 2016? Because Dark Tranquillity have managed to take all the elements I hate about gothenburg and turn them upside-down with mature songwriting that transforms these genre staples into bittersweet offerings with a certain depth I had yet to hear from any gothenburg release.
As you may know, Dark Tranquillity are one of the originators of gothenburg metal along with In Flames and At The Gates. With In Flames going by the wayside over the last decade, and At The Gates recently reforming after 19 years to make the steaming pile of mediocrity that was At War With Reality, Dark Tranquillity are the only remaining pioneers of the genre that I still hold any amount of respect for. That being said, I haven't really cared for a Dark Tranquillity release since the above average Fiction in 2007, so my hopes for a return to form with Atoma weren't high to say the least, let alone believing that it was going to be the best DT release since The Gallery.
My first spin of Atoma didn't exactly leave me in awe, but I was hopeful nonetheless. My mixed thoughts upon completion consisted of "Wow, there were some great parts there, but some of it was pretty lame", and "Man, Winter's Gate really sucks compared to this, Insomnium can fuck off." These mixed emotions compounded with the recent disappointments of Insomnium and Be'lakor left me with a need to fill a year's long melodeath void, and my initial impressions of Atoma were promising enough to give it another spin, then another, and another. By this time all I could think of was the powerful and impossibly catchy ”Encircled", the emotional, driving force of the main riff in "Forward Momentum", the explosion of exciting gothenburg that is "The Pitiless", the truly awesome intro of "Clearing Skies", all the while finding myself screaming the lyrics to "Faithless By Default" in my head. With so many memorable moments on one album, I found myself with no other choice but to keep Atoma spinning in my CD player for weeks, with each listen highlighting a new facet to absorb as my qualms with gothenburg cheesiness were being eaten away by the bombastic but somehow subtle character of the album.
Any former listener of Dark Tranquillity should know what to expect from each member's performance. The guitars are played with precise technicality without sounding wanky, while keyboardist Martin Brändström lays down the melody without overstepping his bounds as much as keyboardists usually tend to do in this genre. This lack of flamboyancy is what defines and highlights the mature songwriting on Atoma. The band have evolved their sound into an incarnation of gothenburg which doesn't rely on cheap hooks but rather a confidence to draw you in using original melodies and replayability created by the sheer density of the songs. Just as the layers of guitars and keys of a verse begin to seep into the senses a new form of sound emerges, leaving me wanting more while at the same time giving into the complexities of this new sound. The cycle completes itself when the yearning for a repeated passage is satisfied, now branded into the brain along with an urge to hit the replay button.
While the instrumentation is expertly subdued, what might come as a surprise is that 42 year-old Mikael Stanne sounds better than ever behind the microphone. His cleans he originally brandished in Projector sound like pure ecstasy here, while is screams harness a certain gruffness that gives them an in-your-face passionate feel of anger and aggression. Many of the vocal lines throughout the album play these vocal styles against each other, each emotion battling for control of the other as they struggle to come to terms with the issues presented in the lyrics. This is where some problems arise though since I have never been a fan of lyrics dealing with social issues and personal struggle, but the vocal delivery here is simply good enough to look past any faults in the lyrics and find your own interpretation through Stanne's varied emotives.
Unfortunately no album is perfect, as I have yet to address a certain "lameness" mentioned earlier. The title track is in my opinion the weakest by far, with that candy gothenburg sweetness brought right up front by the obnoxiously overbearing keyboard melody present through nearly the entire song. This is also the only track on the album where Stanne's vocals didn't win me over through the cliché motivational poster lyrics. I also think the end of the album would have benefitted from switching "Caves And Embers" with what would have been a vastly superior choice for a closer, "Merciless Fate", as the track harnesses a certain epic quality. These gripes are minor, as there are no songs on Atoma that I would consider filler tracks, which is a testament to the integrity of a twelve song album, especially in the gothenburg genre.
This is perhaps the first time in metal history where a bands Eleventh album is the greatest in their discography. Dark Tranquillity have continued to evolve their sound throughout their history, and this may be the perfect culmination of what they have strove for in their 28 year existence. My hope now for the gothenburg genre as a whole is to take note of Atoma for its refreshing take on the genre and leave the stale hooks for something I can actually sink my teeth into without feeling like I just ate something out of the recycling bin.