The Atlas Moth is not your average “genre” band. More than being another entry in the long list of throwaway stoner doom acts, the Chicagoan five-piece’s sophomore LP An Ache for the Distance was a gorgeously rendered amalgam of sinewy sludge, painterly post-metal and heavy-handed psychedelia; a lushly psychedelic heavy metal record impossible to pigeonhole and just as easy to love. It’s the kind of record that screams “classic” in its first couple of seconds and could possibly reaffirm one’s faith in modern metal.
I’m certainly projecting my own love for the record onto the opinions of the metal scene at large, but it’s true that An Ache… made quite a splash upon its release and set the bar very, very high for these slow-and-low hopefuls.
Sure enough, the first handful of listens through The Old Believer made it fairly clear to me that The Atlas Moth has blown themselves out of the water with its masterful predecessor. Something about the uniformly dejected tempo and the lack of authoritative, capital ”R” riffage of cuts like “Holes in the Desert” or “Perpetual Generations” off An Ache… didn’t feel quite right. It felt tepid, noodly, and noncommittal. The truth was that I had been listening for the wrong things.
On The Old Believer, the Moth elects neither to dazzle nor to entertain – dazzling and entertaining as it ultimately is by the 20th spin. An Ache… was a breathtaking statement of purpose from a hungry band with everything to prove; it needed to be vigorous, vital and downright immediate. But, now having won the collective attention of the metal scene, these trailblazing Chicagans no longer need to prove themselves, and coming off the heels of lineup changes, health problems and the deaths of loved ones, their third record is necessarily an introspective journey of startling complexity. It simply isn’t for the riff-addicts like myself who have become accustomed to immediacy. Rather, The Old Believer is a testament to the Moth’s ability to create deep, dynamic metal that deals not in debasement (not that there’s anything wrong with that), but in earnest, heartfelt expressions of love, longing, grief and wonder.
Soundtracking these stories is an ensemble of keyboards, harsh/clean vocal tradeoffs and three guitar players, and they use them to their most ornate potential. It makes cuts like “Collider” and “Sacred Vine” particularly lush, and they only occasionally comes close to overuse on the track “Wynona,” which often seems to lose itself in noodly spaciness. By and large, thankfully, the band takes a tasteful approach to such intricate, luxurious songwriting.
Yet, the music ultimately acts as set pieces for the driving focus of the record, which lies in the emotive stories embedded in the decorative musical backdrop. “The Sea Beyond” in particular takes a turn for the heart-wrenching when Stavros abandons the druggy imagery and lets loose on very simple, honest expressions of death and grief:
When I close my eyes, I still hear your voice
My hand in yours, calming my fears
I know you’re always with me
It’s a little wonky and unpoetic on paper, but it’s really the delivery that makes most lyrics in heavy metal work, and the execution of Giannopoulos and Kush affords “The Sea Beyond” – and the record as a whole – earnest, heart-on-sleeve poignancy. Giannopoulos in particular uses his emotive screech to drench every line he delivers in pain, and it’s so startlingly unhinged and desperate that the occasional lyrical bluntness seems necessary to tether the song to its emotional core amidst a dreamlike landscape of “crystal entities”.
In fact, much of what makes The Old Believer work so well is the focus on lyrics, and the interplay between Giannopoulos’s harsh vocals and the baritone cleans of Kush. Themes of loss, grief, and healing animate every song on the record, all the while being filtered through a kaleidoscopic lens of obtuse, hallucinatory imagery. More to the point, on “Sacred Vine” (the “vine” in question being of the psychedelic variety), the two make a palpably desperate appeal to the titular plant:
Running through my mind, seeking the truth
Hoping to find my way through my own haze
Mother Ayahuasca, suffer the pain
Summon the birds to sing a song in my brain
It’s certainly not your average drug reference. Even if you can’t quite relate to stories of hallucinogen-induced psychonautics, the larger theme of being thrust into existential trauma after losing a loved one – and struggling to make meaning of it in its wake – is powerfully relatable. It’s a refreshingly human quality that sticks out within a genre often given to fantasy and escapism.
The Old Believer is still nowhere near the masterful record that An Ache for the Distance was, but it nonetheless helps solidify The Atlas Moth as one of the most unique, exciting and daring modern metal bands playing now, and it would behoove one to listen up – and listen carefully.