In 2016, The Underground yielded a cool troupe of hard rockers hailing from Eastern Germany called Motorowl. Their debut, Om Generator (“OG”), was an accomplished and mature outing for such a fresh group and they naturally caught my eye when they reappeared in our promo bin, replete with Century Media record deal intact and spacey new artwork. I like exposing small bands even if signed to (relatively) big labels so permit me 600 words or so to explore Atlas.
Atlas does not stray too far from the OG sound. It sits at the intersection of hard rock and stoner doom with light wafts of psychedelia drifting through. I am pleased to report that the great keyboards which I loved in the debut play a similar role and the lead vocals are now smoother and more refined. It blends crunchy immediacy through the driving guitars with an atmospheric scope through the reverb-drenched vocals and diverse use of the keyboards. At first, listen, it is easy to prioritize the nifty guitar-work as a number of the tracks boast exciting riffs, such as in the second half of “Cargo” and in the introduction to “Norma Jean.” Nonetheless, the title track is a good example of how Motorowl fuse good riffs with an emotional undercurrent which is often carried by the keyboards and vocals. This is somewhat comparable with Royal Thunder.
Not all hard rock can hit such emotive heights. Motorowl are not solely about riffs and groove; I dig that as although a great riff can make a track, it is easier to identify with a record that makes you feel something. The sparingly used solos are surprisingly delicate and the tracks’ climaxes tend to be melodic and atmospheric rather than heavy. My favorite track called “To Take” epitomizes this quality. It is inter-cut with some of the Atlas‘s strongest guitar grooves and boldest instrumental moments but the mid-song crescendo is a beautiful focal point. A simple, four-chord progression gradually layers with keyboard melodies, thumping drums and a final heavy culmination before cutting back into the verse-chorus format. Some pleasant “ooh”s round things out at its conclusion and I’m left repeating the song endlessly.
It is, therefore, a disappointment that I am left having to report on several problems elsewhere on the record. A dagger in its back is that the vocal melodies are simply less memorable than on OG. There are exceptional moments where I find myself singing along but the vocals themselves, while stronger than previously, do not engage me to a great extent. This is probably not aided by their still being a touch low in the mix. Furthermore, most songs are artificially extended by uniformly repetitive introductions which are too long. Atlas should very much have been a leaner cut of meat as it is Motorowl in a less streamlined, more meandering form. This is for better and worse: the atmospheric elements are good but the repetitive openings which usually extend over a minute and less overt hooks contribute to an overall experience which feels less demanding than the debut. “Norma Jean” and its nine minutes typify this, as it wanders through decent passages but lacks a memorable, melodic tether which completely maintains my attention.
On balance, Atlas falls short of OG. This necessarily confines it to a lower score than the 3.5 I awarded to the latter and is further degraded by the looser songwriting with which it can be characterized. Nonetheless, note that it still attains a 2.5; Atlas is far from a bad release and retains plenty of quality moments. The tools for success are all still here and I will, therefore, await a sequel while repeatedly spinning “To Take.”