Review Summary: Atma Weapon proves they're just as skilled at concise songs as progressive epics.
The great thing about a debut album based around a half-hour progressive rock epic is that when the time for your sophomore album rolls around, it has very little to prove. Atma Weapon’s 2013 debut Dark Tower was an incredibly ambitious and striking release, showing a level of instrumental skill and cohesive songwriting that progressive bands rarely display on their first album.
But despite the quality of the album’s epic title suite, it was the two standalone tracks - “Dark Dreamer” and “Miss Misery” - that were the most immediately compelling material on Dark Tower. With The Fields Where Nothing Grows, Atma Weapon has delivered a whole album expanding on the more concise progressive stylings of these songs, and it’s just as impressive as I’d hoped.
Amma Weapon's musical style hasn’t changed much from their debut album, which is fine by me - their progressive hard rock approaches my ideal musical genre, and expands on the sound of their debut just like I’d hoped. The biggest difference is that Fields is a noticeably less heavy record compared to its predecessor, embracing the band’s more melodic inclinations while offering plenty of powerful, driving riffs. There are some harsh vocals on a few tracks, but for the most part singer/rhythm guitarist Mick Armstrong sticks to a classic heavy metal style of soaring vocals that will immediately appeal to fans of Iron Maiden, Ozzy, and Dio. However, it’s worth noting that his range seems to have greatly expanded since Dark Tower, and there’s a lot more variety to his singing than on the first album - particular evident on “Every Ship,” which is probably the standout vocal performance of the album.
If Dark Tower had any real weakness, it was simply a limited amount of variety - being an album that ultimately consisted of three songs. With Fields, Atma Weapon gets to flex their impressive songwriting chops, imbuing each distinct track with progressive flourishes that more concisely accomplish Dark Tower’s ambitions. "Everything You Won’t" and "Clear Blue Skies” are thrilling tunes fueled by Cameron Johnson’s spiraling guitar riffs, and although Johnson remains the star of Atma Weapon’s sonic assault, there’s plenty of great drumming and bass playing (like on the intro to “Autumn’s Leaves.") Carefully-composed songs keep Atma Weapon from tiresome instrumental wankery, making their riffs and solos much more powerful as a result - like on the instrumental “The Wasteland."
For a fairly young band, Atma Weapon has done an impressive job of creating their own distinct sound, which is fleshed out on their sophomore album. “Fields of Sorrow” is a standout track propelled by Iron Maiden-esque power riffs, and “Clear Blue Skies” has some of Johnson’s best riffs, leads, and chord progressions on the album. What makes Atma Weapon one of the most impressive young metal bands is their incredible sense of melodicism, which makes even their most complex moments immediately appealing, and importantly expands their appeal far beyond fellow musicians. It’s also worth noting that the album’s production sound fantastic, much like its predecessor.
Fields is undoubtedly a more accessible album than Dark Tower, but what’s impressive is that Atma Weapon achieved this without any sense that they’re compromising their musical vision. This is an album where a band takes their fully-realized musical style and deliberately aims for a different goal, and it works quite well. As much as I like Fields, I’m not sure that any moment quite matches the brilliance of "Miss Misery" or "Dark Tower V,” but whether your taste inclines toward early Rush, NWOBHM, or more recent progressive acts like Porcupine Tree, The Fields Where Nothing Grows has a lot to offer.