The Atlas Moth are a heavy quintet from Chicago, IL. From their inception, the band have blended aggressive genres into dense, complex mixtures of varying consistency. On The Old Believer, the band’s third full-length, The Atlas Moth have created an album that defiantly refuses to sound like any established metal genres. However, uniqueness is not synonymous with excellence in this case; The Atlas Moth have left their ingredients in the blender for too long, ending up with a mostly textureless, vaguely progressive smoothie that verges on musical blandness.
The sound of The Old Believer is a sort of decentralized cloud of musical information—two vocalists, two to three guitars, a synthesizer, drums and bass—all orbiting around some implied nucleus. Even when the band members coordinate, there’s a feeling of space between the instruments. Credit goes to guitarist/vocalist/keyboardist Andrew Ragin for this. He’s come a long way as an engineer since the murky mix of A Glorified Piece of Blue-Sky. Each musical element on The Old Believer is given appropriate weight, and panning within the sound field is used deftly in lifting and separating the many melodic threads woven together to form The Old Believer.
However, the sterling production reveals the important attributes that are lacking on The Old Believer. First, the album does not contain one heavy moment. This is a bold claim, but the album is so diffuse and deliberately paced that the elements never cohere into anything that is the least bit threatening or evil. Sure, guitarist-vocalist’s Stavros Giannopoulos’ scream-squeals are shrill and frantic, but they mostly echo out somewhere. He’s never looking into your eyes with threatening intent. The Atlas Moth are obviously trying to convey some sense of the mythical journey on The Old Believer, but what’s a journey without some sense of real danger and horror, without dark moments of creeping doubt and foreboding?
By a similar token, the constant busyness of the compositions on The Old Believer is detrimental to its ability to excite. Tension built up through silences and isolated performances would allow more depth of feeling to develop and create opportunities for dynamic force. How many thousands of bands have gone abruptly from creeping doom to blasting death metal? How many times have you found your body reacting to this well-worn switch-up? It’s a cliché, but it works. In abandoning genre touchstones, The Atlas Moth have eschewed useful tools like these, and neglected to invent effective ones of their own. The Old Believer proceeds as a continuously plodding, lugubrious march, containing only the subtlest dynamics in volume and tempo—small variations that deliver little impact. There is atmosphere, but it’s provisional—ephemeral and somewhat forced. The Old Believer contains the type of music that a band would play without looking at each other.
It must also be said that guitarist/vocalist David Kush’s clean vocals actually lower the quality of the album. While they may be intended as a foil for Giannopoulos’ raspy howl, they’re just plain corny—delivered in bland, officious overtones that consistently suck the darkness out of The Old Believer’s atmosphere. And it’s not just the delivery, it’s those lyrics! On The Old Believer, the listener is forced to endure—with painful clarity—sword and sorcery genericisms that would embarrass DragonForce.
The Old Believer isn’t all bad, though. There’s a lot of variation throughout the album, and to The Atlas Moth’s credit, the progressions are uniformly fluid and natural. When the atmosphere is on, it’s really on, thanks to the spacious, balanced mix. When the band actually decide to play one thing and play it with some urgency, the results are jarring. The late parts of “Wynona” and “Hesperian” and the beginning of “Blood Will Tell” are fleeting phantoms, whispering what could have been. It’s clear that The Atlas Moth are talented and forward-thinking. At their best they’re immersive, and have a knack for wrangling many elements into a compelling whole. However, in erecting The Old Believer without the supportive frameworks of genre, or an effective substitute for them, The Atlas Moth have created a hazy structure that lacks essential shape and contour. The senses are left adrift in the milieu, lacking direction, and end up going nowhere at all.