Artist: Dark Tranquillity

Album Title: Atoma

Label: Century Media

Date Of Release: 4 November 2016

It seems fitting that I am releasing this review on the eighth anniversary of my late brother’s passing. It is a horrendously sad time of the year but it is made a little more comforting by being surrounded by an old friend in the form of Sweden’s Dark Tranquillity.

Dark Tranquillity are not just one of my favourite melodic death metal bands, they are one of my all-time favourite bands from any genre or subgenre of music. They were also a big favourite of my brother too. Ever since I first discovered them at University in the late 90s, they have been a constant companion, a band that has brought me joy and satisfaction with a consistency that is more than impressive. Be it on record or in the live arena, they never failed to delight my brother and me and we shared some great times down the years thanks to this band.

I have tried but I can’t think of a single album that I don’t like. Moreover, I can’t actually think of an album which is anything less than excellent, a standard that the Swedes constantly aim for with unerring accuracy.

Dark Tranquillity are rightly attributed with helping to form the genre within which they sit, the ‘New Wave of Swedish Death Metal’ or the ‘Gothenburg sound’ if you prefer. Much like other melodeath bands, they have tinkered with their sound over the years, dabbling with different ideas within their core framework. However, unlike some of their contemporaries and compatriots, they have never taken the experimentation too far. Whether their output has been more catchy or extreme, Dark Tranquillity have always had the knack of delivering the goods.

I’ve always thought about the reason for the success and longevity of Dark Tranquillity and in writing this review, I think I have hit upon an answer; their music always feels genuine, never contrived or forced. The blend of more extreme ingredients with strong, memorable melodies and powerful atmospheres is just about perfect. What’s more, despite plying their trade in the extreme metal world, Dark Tranquillity always manage to convey a high level of sincerity and a genuine warmth, led by the mercurial and enthusiastic Mikael Stanne, which then flows through the rest of the band.

It goes without saying that I have been looking forward to album number eleven for some time. And here we have it, in the form of ‘Atoma’, a release that didn’t have the easiest of births following the somewhat shock departure of guitarist and founding member Martin Henriksson, who realised that after a quarter of a century, he had had enough and didn’t have the drive or desire to carry on.

Nevertheless, the remaining members of vocalist Mikael Stanne, lead guitarist Niklas Sundin, drummer Anders Jivarp, keyboardist Martin Brändström and ‘new’ bassist Anders Iwers have continued, persevered and have delivered yet another truly wonderful chapter in the story of Dark Tranquillity. Lyrically and conceptually, ‘Atoma’ is an album that tackles the world’s current ills through a demonstrably human angle, deliberately steering clear of any political stance. And it’s a powerful and rather emotive narrative, crucially backed up by some of the strongest material of the band’s lengthy career.

Credit: Dirk Behlau

Credit: Dirk Behlau

In a nutshell, ‘Atoma’ is just about the perfect blend of the catchiness and immediacy of ‘Haven’ or ‘Character’, the more extreme elements found within ‘We Are The Void’ or ‘Construct’ and the more atmospheric and rich sounds of ‘Projector’, an album which remains a firm favourite to this day. Allow me to elaborate just a touch.

‘Atoma’ kicks off superbly with ‘Encircled’, a track that starts off slowly and deliberately with lashings of atmosphere before picking up pace in positive fashion. The beating heart of the song is very melodic with an instantly likeable chorus, reminding me of the ‘Haven’ era given the catchiness on display. The lead breaks from Sundin are great, whilst Stanne is as caustic as ever with his trademark growl that still maintains some warmth and enables the lyrics to be understood.

The title track begins with an electronic melody before bursting into life. ‘Oh mama, Stanne has brought back his clean vocals’ I exclaim with barely contained joy on a first spin, having sorely missed this ingredient in recent years. The chosen vocal delivery immediately provides a wonderful ‘Projector’ feel, one of my favourite albums from the strong discography. Vocals aside, I also love the contrast between the light and heavy sections, including a pronounced atmospheric minimalist section led by keyboardist Brändström before closing out the song full throttle. The drama is therefore increased at the death and this song just oozes quality from every pore.

I love the bass and drum combo courtesy of Jivarp and Iwers that opens up ‘Forward Momentum’, as well as the opening riff and the overall pace of the track. The keys come to the fore to create depth and dark atmosphere, whilst the clean vocals give me goose bumps. The track’s construction is wonderful as it becomes more intense during the chorus, which is memorable yet at the same time, not quite as obvious. With time though, the melodies sink in with devastating effect. The lead guitar solo from Sundin is gorgeous, full of feeling and eloquence. The dark undertones common to Dark Tranquillity are present but they give me a warm glow as I begin to realise that I’m in the presence of something potentially very special in ‘Atoma’.

‘Neutrality’ continues the theme with a quiet opening, before exploding with urgency and a fair ferocity. Indeed, there is more of a savage feel to this song which I like. The pace is quicker, the vocals more venomously spat and the vibe is more in keeping with the last couple of albums, being darker and more extreme. And yet, despite this, the slightly more subtle melodies are present throughout the song, as are the keys. The groove at the three-quarter mark is marvellous, counterpointed by the slightly uncomfortable-sounding off-kilter notes that are entirely deliberate.

A very dark, quiet and contemplative tone starts off ‘Force Of Hand’, complete with ominous, barely audible whispered vocals. This is a more mid-tempo, moody and cerebral composition with a seriously cool groove to it as well as a commanding ebb and flow. The heaviness eventually joins the fray but at a more measured tempo for the most part until the accelerator is pressed and the track suddenly gallops along, led by powerful near blast-beat drumming at times from Jivarp.

‘Faithless by Default’ doesn’t begin in the same quiet manner as many of its predecessors and yet it has the appearance of being a quieter track somehow. It is still heavy and dark when required but it comes across as being a little more refined overall with a sprawling chorus that works its magic after repeated listens. The stars of this particular show are drummer Jivarp and bassist Iwers who catch my ear every time I dive into this song.

Many of you will have already heard ‘The Pitiless’, given that it is also the lead single from the album, released a while back. It is arguably the most extreme track on the record, opening up at a fair lick and maintaining this urgency As such, ‘The Pitiless’ is much more in keeping with the last couple of records. It goes without saying that it displays some melody and indeed becomes more melodic the more time I spend with it. However, the melodic aspects are buried much deeper in the background as the key for the song, I believe, is to create something altogether more furious, dark and disturbing.

A seriously groovy rhythm straight off the bat introduces the listener to ‘Our Proof Of Life’, which is best described as a rich and powerful affair and is arguably my favourite song on the album. Stanne’s clean vocals return and I’m smiling again as a result – I can’t help it. And then, at the half-way mark, the composition turns into the most anthemic of songs, complete with rousing guitar solo and killer melodies. It also flirts astutely with quieter passages before returning to the opening melody for a muscular closure.

‘Clearing Skies’ which offers more huge melodies throughout but, despite the catchy chorus, the band then deftly reverts to something altogether more spiky and confrontational for the verse. The aforementioned chorus offers more in the way of keys and stop-start riffing, creating a more modern sheen in the process, almost vaguely djent albeit fleetingly. But regardless, this atmospheric composition is absurdly addictive.

The guitar tones and the rhythms applied within ‘When The World Screams’ remind me of the earlier days of Dark Tranquillity much more, whilst expertly blending them with accents of ‘Character’ with hugely impressive results.

Credit: Dirk Behlau

Credit: Dirk Behlau

I’m beginning to run out of positive adjectives by this point but the quality from the Swedish quintet shows no signs of abating. Penultimate track ‘Merciless Fate’ opens slowly and utilises a slower pace overall. Stanne snarls menacingly to begin with, but then the song opens up nicely as it develops. Led by more clean vocals, the melodies suddenly come to the fore almost shyly and make a huge impact within the context of the song. My hairs stand up on end and whether it is because there is seemingly no let-up in the brilliance of this album, I find myself getting emotional.

‘Atoma’ closes with ‘Caves and Embers’. The intro is strong and dramatic, acceding before long to an up-tempo rhythm overlaid with lashings of atmospheric keys from Brändström. The lead guitar flourishes are flamboyant and whether I’m dreaming it or not, there is a vague sense of hope and positivity within the song. The extended introspective and atmospherically substantial mid-section eventually gives way to an outpouring of power as the song, and indeed the album, drives forcefully to a conclusion.

Just when I thought 2016 couldn’t get any better, up pops Dark Tranquillity to send me into a spin of emotion and elation. As I said at the outset, Dark Tranquillity have always been very important to me. However, what ‘Atoma’ does so wonderfully, is draw all of their key ingredients together into one 12-track album to create a thrill-ride of expertly-crafted, engaging and elegant melodic death metal. My love for Dark Tranquillity has been well and truly cemented and right now, I can’t think of a better band within this particular genre. They helped to create it, they have helped to shape it and now, in 2016, Dark Tranquillity have proved that they are still, unquestionably, the masters of melodic death metal.

The Score Of Much Metal: 9.75

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=suhuQlYZwtE&w=560&h=315]

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