Review by David Rosales (read the original by Gabe here)
First things first – let’s get the obvious clear and out of the way. Satan is a band of not only competent instrumentalists, but songwriters with an ear for balance, color and dynamics. The previous review written for DMU on this album emphasized and praised this point as much as the band deserves. As it remarks, the attention to structure in the composition throughout the record and its faithfulness to its chosen style is worthy of praise. The only thing being suggested here is going one step further in our observations.
Sure, from the point of view of a purely academic critique, this is an outstanding work as it plays within its own style with dexterous flexibility, maintaining a certain cohesion and strong sense of flow throughout as colors and transformations are shown and removed. But metal goes beyond the formalities of technical music. Metal is about the the essence, hence it is about the ritual that directs a focus in the listener towards a certain attitude. But with Atom by Atom it sounds like we are gaily riding at full speed to the circus. At this point, we may question whether we are not making the mistake of placing something else besides or outside the music before the music itself. The answer is no; this is still about the content of the music, however non-objective it may seem, and is of the utmost important to a genre that claims to be more than fireworks and self-gratification (both on the artist’s and the listener’s sides).
We could go about explaining this with a loose inductive argument. Humans all tend to hear unisons and fifths as being more in repose and in balance than minor seconds or sevenths. This is because these correspond to very different and constant relations between sound waves at different frequencies, and their effect on the human brain on the physical level is, then, also constant. The way the appreciation of these changes and is trained through the exposure to different types of biases is a different matter, although equally important. Suffice it to say, that at the end it is a matter of the relation between the objective characteristics of sound and the conditioning by the environment of the subject.
Different systems around the world base their music on different philosophies, parting from these facts, even though they may not identify with exact things such as what Western music calls “perfect” or “imperfect” intervals. In the case of metal, it arises from the system of traditional Western tonality of the 19th century with a tendency towards terraced dynamics similar to those of Baroque music. The emphasis on content and delivery over flare that distinguishes metal from rock music also brings it closer to minimalism and one could even say, to early European music.
These are systems based on premises that are not just there as illusions, and serve as the objective sense on which this tonality is built. Certain intervals and progressions, certain melodies contrasted or complemented by the underlying chords, as well as the different rhythmic patterns (predominance of longer notes followed by shorter ones in bars and riffs) all possess distinct auras and characters. And although these cannot be pin-pointed with words, which would then obviate the need for music, we can generally define nebulous areas which range from what we know as human feelings to mental images and even divine morality (hence we have music that is predominantly described as ‘pure’, and music that sounds ‘evil’).
In the case of Satan’s 2015 opus, it’s as if the band had disregarded all sense of meaning in tonality and the character that the interaction between rhythm and melody projects onto the listener. In bouts of pure excitement and fanciful excess, Satan colors this album as a circus clown’s gala suit. Vocals are as emotional as in the first album, except that in here they seem even more disconnected from the music as the music veers into some sort of progressive speed metal akin to Helstar’s.
Although not as degradingly vulgar as Surgical Steel, Satan Atom by Atom results in a pretty tacky affair. This is an album that can serve as study case for guitar players when it comes to technical details in arrangement but falls short of a purposeful metal work. Its lack of heavy theme (from which the term heavy metal comes from) or any particular topic the musical level except the fun-funny carnival mood places it squarely outside any consideration for outstanding albums.