Review Summary: A surprisingly lukewarm effort from the remarkably consistent duo
At the beginning of their 2005 release, You Can’t Imagine How Much Fun We’re Having
, Slug declared, ‘I’m just a man that loved rap, so much, in fact, I put every piece of myself, inside these ***ing tracks.’ Eloquent, punchy, and as accurate a summation of the band's technique and ability as any review will tell you. There is a surprising depth at the heart of Atmosphere's music, and this is a major contributing factor to their consistency; Their discography is full of emotion, well-rhymed verses that are both fluid and lucid, and repetitive yet hypnotic beats, usually made up of little more than a drumbeat, a bassline and a hook. The Family Sign
, however, marks a somewhat non-committal departure from usual Atmosphere fare, being a more personal record in both its’ tone and lyrical themes. For those not in the know, Atmosphere is a hip-hop outfit made up of rapper Sean ‘Slug’ Daley and DJ/ producer Anthony ‘Ant’ Davis. Both members have proven multiple times with previous releases that they are very talented at what they do, which is what makes an album as underwhelming as this all the more disappointing. Atmosphere’s music has always been underscored with a tangible intelligence that undercuts the more raunchy or offensive aspects of their music, as opposed to a mainstream rapper such as Eminem, who may display charisma or prowess in his sound, but lacks that certain vibrancy that marks Atmosphere as a unique act. This intelligence is rather thin on the ground here though, and not because it has been sacrificed for Eminem-style charisma, but rather for generic lyricism that’s a world away from what listeners have come to expect.
After forgettable intro track ‘My Key’, ‘The Last To Say’ manages to toe the seabed, its' head chin-deep in water. A charming piano hook and mournful strings are mixed to minimal effect to the quietly plodding thud of a drum. The song marks what could be an interesting new musical direction for Atmosphere; a tightly wrought, subtle and passionate ballad that expands the accepted sound of the twosome beyond anything they’ve produced before. It’s such a shame, therefore, that the song falls apart thanks to weak structuring skills and a questionable arrangement. For some unknown reason, it was deemed the song needed a chorus; the result is an overly repetitive, brooding, and most glaringly of all, bloated song that throws away its’ flashes of invention for the sake of generic songwriting. Throughout the album, the beats, which are usually innovative and tuneful, are replaced by quietly tedious looping tracks. Some may insist that this exactly what Atmosphere has always done, but the difference now is relevancy; when Atmosphere were an underground rap act, the repetitive beats complemented the music perfectly, almost in the same way that a picture frame complements that which sits between its' four corners. Now, because the tone is more personal, Ant has made the decision to give the album a more melancholic, sombre orchestration, and unfortunately, it doesn’t gel as a cohesive whole, sounding more like a random coffee house soundtrack that Slug has decided to rap over. Even songs that attempt to transcend the album’s formula such as contemporary reggae-sounding track ‘Just For Show’ and jungle RnB track ‘She’s Enough’, display a troublingly jarring sense of harmony, overusing chorus arrangements and bludgeoning the listener with a poorly orchestrated verse structure.
Even more worryingly, some tracks on the album feel like lesser versions of older tracks from Atmosphere’s back catalogue. A notable example is ‘Who I’ll Never Be’, a slow, deliberate ballad with a neat little piano riff looping in the foreground. It’s a solid track, one of the best on the album, but it sounds like an inferior version of ‘Always Coming Back Home To You’ from Seven’s Travels
. ‘If You Can Save Me Now’ echoes the piano and drumbeat structure of ‘A Song About A Friend’ from God Loves Ugly
. I understand that artists experiment with a large number of different sounds to create their own, and I also understand that such artists are likely to recycle elements for more than one composition if they like how it sounds. However, in the instances on The Family Sign
where comparisons can be drawn to older tracks, those featured on this release feel bloated and substandard, rehashing instrumentation to craft unoriginal and, occasionally, quite boring songs. Lyrically, the album feels lesser to previous releases too, with Slug’s usually on-point, sharp and inspired rhymes replaced by a vapid form of poetry that simply does not suit the tone of his delivery. There’s something rather rough-and-tumble about Slug; a streetwise wisdom that belies the venomous opinions he holds. It is therefore somewhat bizarre to see all of these motifs dropped and replaced by such thoroughly uninspired material as this. Ant gets equal blame for his shoddy beats, which feel tired and trite for an album that attempts to delve so deep. It’s hard to fault the production, which is usually one of Atmosphere’s many strengths, but if I was going to be especially picky, the sound mixing is a little off, in favour of the music over the rhymes (although as to whether this is a good or a bad thing, the jury is still out)
The nostalgic nature of The Family Sign
affords it some novelty value, but fans of Atmosphere’s earlier work will most likely find themselves scratching their heads, wondering what happened to the cutting humour and edge to Atmosphere’s unique sound that allowed them to stand apart from the crowd. Clearly, there’s something all-encompassing that has rendered all the individual facets to the sound of The Family Sign
as subpar, and that thing is the theme of the record. In going more personal, it’s almost as if Atmosphere have lost themselves. The Family Sign
is forgettable and a second-rate release in comparison to the rest of the material they have put out. Hopefully, it’s only a misstep, and the album represents an experiment that was not quite as successful as its’ pioneers hoped.