Whenever a new Dark Tranquillity album drops, it causes me to reflect on the state of the Gothenburg sound. Despite lesser albums like We Are the Void and Construct, it’s abundantly clear Dark Tranquillity reaped the most benefit from the stylistic tontine they established with In Flames and At the Gates back in 1992. Their particular take on melo-death has aged like a fine vintage while others have become little more than hobo wine. That great gulf is even more stark when Dark Tranquillity crafts a masterful release like Atoma. At once maintaining their classic sound and moving it forward, Atoma is the new phase only hinted at on 2013s Construct. The band’s usual cold melancholy weighs heavily like a funeral shroud, yet the writing delivers a vibrancy that belies the sadness while delivering real and immediate hooks to drag you deeper into the album’s spell. They’ve managed to strike a near-perfect balance between moody goth-rock and death metal with tastefully blackened edges, and in the process delivered their best work since Fiction.
The beauty of Atoma is that it’s at once so familiar, but just different enough to avoid feeling stale or rote. Opener “Encircled” is a classic DT cut – blackened but melodic riffs sizzle and undulate against shimmering keyboard and the ever-engaging rasps of Mikael Stanne; it’s fierce even as it’s memorable, moody and beautiful. The title track takes the goth influence up several notches for what could almost be a One Second era Paradise Lost hit, and Stanne’s clean singing is rich in all its Projector-esque sweetness. This is such a memorable, accessible song yet it never feels watered down.
And the hits keep crashing into your consciousness, from the vaguely industrial, edgy catchiness of “Forward Momentum” to the sterile futuristic gleam of “Force of Hand” (which includes some nifty Amon Amarth-riffs), and the depressive beauty of “Faithless by Default,” the band expertly plucks at your emotions with carefully crafted, ingratiating melo-death moments. Even quirky closer, “Caves and Embers” could be a dark-horse favorite, with an approach that echoes latter period Anathema without losing DT‘s core sound.
As great as the material is, it’s the 2 bonus cuts that hit me the hardest. “Time Out of Place” is a beautiful goth song full of angst and bittersweet, The Cure-like keyboards with Stanne delivering a heartbreaking vocal performance. “The Absolute” is equally somber and sad with a strong Projector-era vibe and Stanne again comes through with some wonderfully plaintive vocals.
With 12 songs running 49 minutes, there’s not a weak moment to be found and the album plays amazingly well as a whole. Atoma is also the model of concise writing, with all songs running between 3-4 minutes, making their visits seem all too brief and fleeting. The production isn’t overly dynamic but it doesn’t hurt the music in a major way, and the clean, modern sound adds to the overall sense of remote coldness.
Atoma may be triumph of overall song writing, but it’s Mikael Stanne’s impassioned vocals that carry it to the promised land. Whether it’s his trademark blackened death rasps or his impressive clean singing, he’s evolved into a front man with few equals. He also may be the most decipherable of all death metal vocalists, and that’s a plus when the lyrics are worth hearing as they are here. Atoma is the first album without guitarist Martin Henriksson joining Niklas Sundin at the riff desk, but the classic DT sound remains with a never-ending supply of haunting, blackened leads and melodic harmonies. In fact, this is some of DT‘s best riffcraft in years and every song crackles with energetic fret-work. It would be a crime to minimize the importance of Martin Brändström’s keyboards. His playing has long been an essential cog in the DT construct, providing much of the melancholic, morose moods they revel in. He’s outdone himself here, creating his best collection of subtle, downtrodden accents without ever forcing the keys into an overly prominent role.
Atoma is the most definitive statement on the health and vitality of melo-death in a long while and one of the best moments in Dark Tranquillity‘s lengthy career. It’s also one of the year’s best releases and one you should not miss. After a few less than amazing albums, it’s great to hear the last of the Gothenburg golden boys back in top form and to be reminded anew why I’ve loved them for the better part of 2 decades.