Review Summary: A formidable boss battle.
Somewhere near the midway point of the labyrinthine Dickensian opera known as Final Fantasy VI, the player engages in combat with a half-machine boss monster called Ultima Weapon in Japanese. In the original Super Nintendo localization, the boss was renamed Atma Weapon, probably because of concerns over legal issues with the Ultima series of video games.
Since my play-through of Final Fantasy VI has been on hiatus for a few months, I can't offer you much advice on how to beat this particular boss (even though I stopped playing not lot after the aforementioned part of the game.) However, I can tell you that even if I never go back and beat the game, I'm still glad I played it. Otherwise, this band's name would never have jumped out at me, and I'd more likely than not have never heard given their music a chance.
That would have been a real tragedy.
I knew right away that if a progressive rock band took their name from a 16-bit video game and had a Roger Dean-esque epic fantasy album cover, I was probably going to like what they had to say. Even so, Atma Weapon's debut Dark Tower is a very pleasant surprise.
The titular suite of six interconnected songs kicks off with a furious blast of metallic riffs before launching into a driving verse. These guys have a lot to say, and effectively give a preamble of their entire ethos in the first two minutes or so.
I've always been a fan of classic progressive rock music, but even there I've rarely heard such a good balance between technical musicianship, creature song structures, and a superior sense of melodicism. Dark Tower is a clean and well-produced album, but one without any unnecessarily flourishes to distract from the prodigious abilities of the band's members. There's no orchestration, no keyboard wizardry, not even any guitar wanking – which is quite a feat considering the number of soulful solos on this record.
Mick Armstrong's vocals play a crucial role to keeping the record grounded. Many of Dark Tower's best moments occur during his clean vocals, like the verses of Dark Tower I and Dark Dreamer. The record's only real weak point are the sections with harsh vocals, which approach the pitfalls of sterile, soulless prog-metal. Unlike many progressive rock and metal bands which have dedicated singers with long, flowing hair and leather pants, Armstrong is not a voice tacked on to an instrumental band; he feels more like an indie rock singer successful transplanted to a prog group and truly benefits the group's sound. Removing him from the equation would be a real blow to what makes the album work so well.
But the real star of the show is guitarist Cameron Johnson, around whom Atma Weapon's sonic assault centers like matter falling into a black hole. His riffs are at once memorable, yet reward repeated listening with their provocative intricacy. Resisting the urge to unleash mindless shredding, his solos are gloriously melodic, well-paced, and fit beautifully with the rest of the music in Dark Tower IV, V, and the last two tracks.
Bassist Billy Guynn and drummer Brandon Allen are crucial to the band's sound for their thoughtful restraint. By eschewing over-the-top drumming and obnoxious bass effects, the band sounds much more grounded and raw, giving Atma Weapon a rare balance of intricacy and accessibility. And they fit clearly into the mix, in a way that other bands with more bombastic rhythm sections don't.
The titular Dark Tower suite shows a level of compositional mastery and balance that is simply dazzling from such a young band; motifs are introduced and repeated throughout, with a variety of moods and tempos explored that all merge together in a strikingly effective manner. But the final two tracks – Dark Dreamer and Miss Misery – are no less impressive. The perfect synchronization between the vocal and guitar melodies in Dark Dreamer's verse is one of the record's most immaculate moments, leading up to well-paced and beautiful guitar solos. Miss Misery kicks the listener with an immediate assault of astral riffs leading into a song that churns into desperation before blitzing into a satisfying climax.
I am not a fan of much modern progressive rock music; the like of Dream Theater or Porcupine Tree often exhaust me, not because they're lacking in ideas but because I perceive them as soulless auditory calculus. Atma Weapon manages to take the same ideas but present them in the form of a harsh-but-beautiful painting rendered in gray, green, and black. There are hints of classic progressive acts like Rush (on Dark Tower II) but in truth Atma Weapon much more closely resembles the sonic atmosphere of ambitious post-hardcore bands.
In the end, after a dozen listens to this record, the only real complaint I can levy against Atma Weapon is that there's not more music on their debut (one very long song split into parts, and two shorter ones.) If Atma Weapon can continue to create records of this quality, then sooner or later they'll be recognized as one of the best bands in modern progressive rock.