Set against the backdrop of contemporary heavy metal — a milieu that often celebrates violence, hatred, and darkness — The Atlas Moth’s third full-length, The Old Believer, displays a peculiar sensitivity. Abandoning the spaghetti western motif of their impressive sophomore set, An Ache for the Distance, Believer emerges as an extended meditation on grief, like Pantera’s “Cemetery Gates” expanded into an album-length fantasy epic (which makes sense given the band’s string of personal losses). Dual frontmen Stavros Giannopoulos and David Kush frequently address their lyrics to some unspecified “you,” an other who has passed on to a world beyond their reach. Album opener “Jet Black Passenger uses imagery of romantic immolation to set the stage for the ensuing melodrama: “Now I’ll lie with your bones on fire, eyes in ash… We belong here, one step outside the wall/ Engulfed by a cleansing blaze, awaiting our end.” There’s a melancholic grandiosity to these lines that recalls the funeral pyre of [SPOILER REDACTED] at the end of Season 1 of Game of Thrones. It encapsulates the violence inherent to the love of which the band sings — not the Nick Cave, murder-your-sweatheart sort of violence, but a love so titanic that it can only be described in destructive terms: lovers burn, they collide, and their encounters leave scars.
That level of emotional nakedness can be jarring on a record like this, but it’s actually pretty bold. The doomed romanticism that pervades the album feels real, even if the scenery surrounding it wouldn’t be out of place in a Conan story. But if the band took a tremendous risk in showing their audience so much vulnerability, it’s unfortunate that the accompanying music fails to demonstrate the same raw courage. Ache thrilled us with its wild convolutions, its willingness to chuck aside notions of genre purity to explore the depth of possibility within Atlas Moth’s sound. But while Believer moves the band further away from its doomy roots, the album is more uniform in its approach. Gone are the sudden detours into chilly post punk and the spacey skronk interludes. In their place, we have a lot of polished chrome guitar riffs and glossy synth. Not even the presence of some heavy-hitting guest stars — Joseph Duplantier from Gojira, Marcus Eliopulos of Chicago’s own Stabbing Westward, and the violinists from Subrosa — can do anything to differentiate these compositions from one another; their respective contributions tend to get swallowed up in the album’s relentless charge.
Two of the strongest tracks, “Jet Black Passenger” and “Collider,” are well placed at the beginning, before the listener can settle into the album’s complacency. But the most adventurous offering is probably “Hesperian,” which opens with jazzy drum work and employs Giannopoulos’ ghoulish gasps and shrieks in an unsettling way that I wish was more prominent throughout the album. On Believer, he and Kush actually sing together (rather than in alternating or interlocking parts), but Kush’s clean vocals tend to dominate. In the best instances, Giannopoulos appears as a gruesome double-image trailing just behind Kush’s stentorian intonations. Too often, though, his wails feel like window dressing. Paired with the glossy production and strident guitars, this dynamic gives the album a domesticated feel, like if Iced Earth had taken a sudden interest in black metal.
The Old Believer feels like a creative plateau, all the more disappointing for the fact that the band’s last album left them standing on the cusp of what seemed like an even greater breakthrough. Yet we can’t overlook that The Atlas Moth have attempted to bend the profane vocabulary of metal to give voice to their personal pain and, in doing so, established a lasting connection with those whom they’ve loved and lost. That they come so close to succeeding is impressive. That they tried at all is certainly worthy of our respect and admiration.