To the attentive ear, it’s clear that Swedish melodeath masters Dark Tranquillity have been out of ideas for over a decade. After peaking with Damage Done, the band largely delivered a (wicked) clone in Character before Fiction took the mix-every-phase-of-our-career approach. Neither did anything new, but both were truly great albums. The two albums since – 2010’s We Are the Void and 2013’s Construct – were a step down in overall quality but still saw the band weathering their out-of-ideas period with veteran class. They were simply too good of a band to drop a true dud.
Well, that seems to have ended. Atoma is not just a dud, it’s probably the worst album of Dark Tranquillity’s decades-long career (that depends on your opinion of Projector). At its best moments, it barely reaches the “filler” parts of the band’s great albums, and at its worst it is duller than Jake Gyllenhaal as a leading man. This should come as no surprise after a couple near-miss albums, but it’s still disappointing to witness.
Atoma’s problems don’t stem from anything new, as this is largely the same Dark Tranquillity that we have been hearing for ages: a mix of thrashy and chugging guitars, atmospherics courtesy of leads and a huge wash of keyboards, and Mikael Stanne’s well-worn rasp. It probably falls closest to Haven in terms of overall style, with a touch more Projector at times (Stanne doesn’t shy from his baritone singing), and a touch of Character thrash at others. It’s also as professional from a performance and production stand point as we have all come to expect from the band. So none of that is the problem.
The problem is that Atoma has very few interesting ideas; so much of it is spent in riffless, mid-paced terrain that seems to bore the band as much as the listener. It’s a little weird to write this about the band, but the single biggest fault is that guitars feel like a non-factor on about half of the album. There is way too much “metal strumming,” and not nearly enough just getting after it. Songs such as the title track and “Proof of Life” follow the clean-vocal-verse, generic-plodding-chorus formula, rarely if ever getting any active riffage involved in the mix. Making matters worse, the track order feels like the result of a random number generator, with the ending of closer “Caves and Embers” feeling about as unceremonious a finale as one could possibly muster.
To the slight salvation of the album, when the guitars are a factor, Dark Tranquillity can still manage to write a (relative) banger. Unsurprisingly, heightened riff saturation is typically joined by a touch more speed, such as during opener “Encircled” or highlights “Neutrality” and “The Pitiless.” All of these would fit in just fine on other, much better Dark Tranquillity albums, even if they aren’t quite instant classics. Still, even with the extra speed/riffiness, the paint-by-numbers vibe is readily apparent. The good parts of an album that is a rehash of a rehash of a rehash still sound like a rehash of a rehash of a rehash.
So a 25-year old band finally messed up. It happens, typically long before this moment in a career. Is it disappointing? Absolutely, as Dark Tranquillity is one of melodeath’s true standard bearers and innovators. But moving forward, as fans, the path is clear: Just skip Atoma and spin “Cathode Ray Sunshine” and “Haven” and “The Dividing Line” and “Hedon” and “Inside the Particle Storm” and “Lost to Apathy” and all the other countless badass tracks that the band has penned over the years. Besides, this isn’t outright awful, most of it is just painfully dull, and there’s a good chance they’ll be back to their winning ways before long. And if not, well, there’s a good mix tape to keep your faith strong.