The Atlas Moth has always been a band between worlds. Their foundation is sludge of a distinct Southern variety, mining the bluesy nihilist boogie of Eyehategod and the psychedelic swirl of Baroness alike. Yet the band never stays in one musical terrain for long, frequently using that background in groove as a pathway toward something more ambitious and unconventional. Significant chunks of 2011’s An Ache For the Distance and, to an even greater extent, 2014’s The Old Believer, eased off of conventional metal sounds entirely, often simply existing in more atmospheric spaces that merely suggested heaviness rather than over-indulging. And though they’d always eventually get back to a full-throttle assault, the restraint was no less refreshing.
Coma Noir, the band’s fourth album and first to be released through Prosthetic, finds The Atlas Moth in a transitional period of sorts. It’s their first album to feature Mike Miczek on drums, as well as the first of their albums to feature an outside producer. That producer, Sanford Parker, has the kind of credentials (Yob, Minsk, Eyehategod) that would likely put him close to the top of any contemporary metal band’s list. Whether it’s solely the result of enlisting Parker or a drive for change from the band itself, there’s a big difference this time around. Though in terms of songwriting style Coma Noir bears the hallmarks of The Atlas Moth’s previous triumphs, in production it bears a much more piercing and jagged sonic treatment. The psychedelic ambiance that defined the group’s past two records isn’t gone, but it’s been demoted to a supporting role. Here, the guitars hack and slash, the riffs chug and the rhythms hit with even greater impact.
From the opening gallop of the title track, The Atlas Moth are in battle-ready form. It’s an urgent and furious rush, the likes of which would be more commonly heard on a High on Fire album, though there’s a greater sense of clarity and soaring melody to this version of the band. The chorus is even more triumphant and towering than the verse, showcasing impressive harmonies between vocalists Stavros Giannopoulos and David Kush. “Last Transmission from the Great Planet Earth” boasts a sci-fi synth sound beneath its Corrosion of Conformity-like riffs, finding an eerie cross section between boogie and the beyond. And “Galactic Brain” has an unstoppable strut, its reliance on clean vocals giving it a more accessible overall sound than many of the album’s more intense destroyers.
What Coma Noir gains in clarity and sharpness, it loses in the band’s previous psychedelic atmosphere. Which is to say it’s not a net loss, but an interesting tradeoff. The embrace of dreamy atmospheric elements was always what made The Atlas Moth special, though Coma Noir is a reminder of sorts that they’re first and foremost a metal band. And it’s not a bad reminder to have. Given that their most crushing moments often existed in a heady mixture of hallucinogenic textures, it’s good to hear the band simply letting the riffs fly and tearing into some of their nastiest grooves to date.
Jeff Terich is the founder and editor of Treble. He's been writing about music for 20 years and has been published at American Songwriter, Bandcamp Daily, Reverb, Spin, Stereogum, uDiscoverMusic, VinylMePlease and some others that he's forgetting right now. He's still not tired of it.