Label: Century Media Records
Runtime: 49 Minutes
Released: November 4th, 2016
November marks the return of two Gothenburg, Sweden-based melodic death metal originators, and while the collective metal community seems to have given up on In Flames after their numerous and storied shifts toward a pop-metal sound, Dark Tranquillity stand accused of an entirely different crime: stagnation. Even DT's staunchest supporters generally admit that since 2007's album Fiction, Dark Tranquillity have been in a creative rut that just keeps getting deeper and deeper. 2010's We Are the Void failed to innovate or garner much attention in an increasingly over-saturated metal scene, and in 2013, Construct proved that consistency of output isn't always a net positive. And then in early 2016, a bombshell dropped: founding band member Martin Henriksson quit the band, stating that he had "lost the passion for playing music", leaving fans more nervous than ever about where Dark Tranquillity would go from here on out. This brings us to the November release of Atoma, the latest DT platter and their first album post-Henriksson. So how does the new album measure up against Construct? Have Dark Tranquillity broken the chain of Fiction-clones and produced something for Gothenburg metal fans to sink their teeth into?
Atoma is a masterfully constructed and produced album with one foot firmly in high-tempo melodeath riffs, and the other submerged in deep gothic depression. Vocalist Mikael Stanne sounds as soulful as ever, his instantly recognizable cleans peppered far more liberally throughout the album than usual. Early single 'Forward Momentum' evokes a wistful yearning, running the gamut between hopeful to depressed and back again within its all-too-short 3:14 run-time. In stark contrast, tracks like 'The Pitiless', 'Force of Hand', and 'When the World Screams' all offer a faster-paced melodic death metal side of the band, making sure to jolt you upright between dips into slower gothic territory. This is Dark Tranquillity by the numbers, but it is flawlessly executed, and a sight better than expected after Henriksson's departure. Atoma once again falls into the trap of DT's redundancy, but it is just so much fun to listen to and so well designed that it stands tall above the lackluster efforts of the previous two albums.
There are a few standout tracks that offer brief glimpses into where the band could go were they to stop playing it safe and flex their atrophied innovation-muscles. 'Clearing Skies' feels fresh and engaging, its melodies and staccato rhythms grabbing for attention while Martin Brändström's keys add atmospheric depth. It's not too far removed from the DT template, but it feels just fresh enough to stand out from the pack. Also of note are the two bonus tracks included on the physical release, 'The Absolute' and 'Time Out of Place'. It's really a shame that digital download and streaming site fans won't have access to these tracks, as they are some of the most interesting material the band has put out in over a decade, wallowing in keys, clean vocals, and walls of sound that almost approach an accessible 'drone' from time to time, recalling the song 'Auctioned’ off of Projector, but with a more modern and accessible edge. Century Media released small snippets of the songs as a 'medley' on their YouTube channel, but it's more of a tease than anything else.
Atoma is the best that Dark Tranquillity have sounded since Fiction, and it’s great to hear songs like ‘Clearing Skies’ pushing the envelope, no matter how minute the push forward may be. The entire band is at the top of their game here and the production is crisp and clear—very pleasing to the ear in the wake of so many brick-walled releases over the past few years. That said, there’s almost nothing new to find here. If you were tired of Dark Tranquillty treading water before this release, Atoma isn’t going to change your mind. It’s just so frustrating at times to know that the band have it in them to wow us with something unique and exciting, especially when they release bonus tracks that sound so fresh and engaging outside of the album itself! But then again, there is something to be said for consistency as well. Atoma may be yet another cookie cut from DT’s Fiction mold, but it’s still a damn tasty treat.