Atala - Labyrinth Of Ashmedai (BLUE W/ BLACK SPLATTER) (LP)
Catalog number: SALT OF THE EARTH RECORDS - 0001
To say an album gets better with volume is one of rock’s all-time clichés. It’s also usually bullshit. In the case of Labyrinth of Ashmedai, the third full-length from desert-dwelling post-sludge trio Atala, I’ll say it doesn’t hurt. The Twentynine Palms, California, three-piece make their debut on Salt of the Earth Records with their latest collection, with an early 2018 release following up on 2016’s Shaman’s Path of the Serpent (review here) and their 2015 self-titled debut (review here), and like its predecessor, the tight, six-song/35-minute outing was produced and engineered by Billy Anderson (Melvins, Neurosis, Sleep, Acid King, etc.) and demonstrates considerable growth from the release before it. One could argue Shaman’s Path of the Serpent was a moment in which Atala — now the lineup of guitarist/vocalist Kyle Stratton, bassist Dave Horn (who replaces John Chavarria) and drummer Jeff Tedtaotao — discovered the atmospheric reaches they wanted to cover with their sound, following the initial exploration of their Scott Reeder-helmed first offering.
Even so, Labyrinth of Ashmedai, with its cover art by Stratton, flowing presentation of one piece into the next, more accomplished use of vocal melodies (and harmonies) and offsetting of patient ambience with crushing tonality and crash, stands as a remarkable forward manifestation of the next step in the direction that Shaman’s Path of the Serpent laid out. Arranged across two three-song sides, each capping with a track longer than eight minutes — those being “Death’s Dark Tomb” (8:35) and the triumphant finale “Infernal” (8:19) — Labyrinth of Ashmedai immerses the listener its in nodding groove and fluidly executes a deceptive precision in building an arc of momentum that carries across the entire span. And though relatively short with its noted, manageable, vinyl-ready runtime, that span remains significant.
A resounding spaciousness is perhaps what Atala take most from the Californian desert, but they have little in common ultimately with “desert rock” as a genre outside of geography (and it’s certainly arguable geography is irrelevant in the aesthetic concern), and instead meld influences from Neurosis and YOB together with the rawer impulses of sludge. After an initial sample and a measure-long intro to initiate the stomp, “Grains of Sand” finds Stratton guttural in his railing against mediocrity and contemplating universal mortality atop a chugging riff fervently pushed ahead by Tedtaotao‘s creative drumming.
They are not a minute into the song before the lumbering hook churns out its furies and takes a twisting route back to the verse, chugging and vaguely hinting at melody to come along the way. The subsequent “Tabernacle of” revives the heavier ’90s-derived alt. metal melodicism one heard on cuts like “Gravity” from the last record, but in so doing, shifts with a newfound subtlety from the more scathing “Grains of Sand” via an emerging call and response Stratton sets up between cleaner and harsh vocals. With a more lumbering groove at its foundation, “Tabernacle Of” nonetheless retains the momentum of the opener before it, and feeds directly into “Death’s Dark Tomb,” which begins with a few seconds of droning noise — which Anderson may or may not have provided — before the guitar, bass and drums kick in to unveil the greatest sense of weight Atala have yet to bring to Labyrinth of Ashmedai, the vocals recalling Crowbar in the first verse as they set up a more spacious chorus that proves to be arguably the most landmark hook the album has to its credit.
Tedtaotao works in some notable double-kick moving back into the second verse and is head-spinning on tom runs throughout, while the low end density provides the foundation from which the band’s atmosphere spreads outward in a manner one might call psychedelic were it not so much imbued with the taste of dry dirt. Maybe psych, but for sure bound to the earth as well as its Mike Scheidt-style squibbly guitar lead gives way to a huge slowdown and the song devolves in its last minute-plus into feedback and noise, ending side A with particular and pointed viciousness.
While progressive in how it sees the band willfully pushing themselves stylistically, Labyrinth of Ashmedai is noteworthy as well for what Stratton, Horn and Tedtaotao bring to it in terms of songwriting, and the linear pairing of “Death’s Dark Tomb” and side B opener “I am Legion” emphasizes the range they’ve developed in what seems like just a few short years of working as a group. Heard without the split of sides — that is, on a CD or digital format, rather than flipping a record — “I am Legion” picks up with drums from the silence left behind after “Death’s Dark Tomb” and centers almost entirely around its chorus, but in that, the two pieces end up complementing each other with a fluidity that even with the stark divide between them is undeniable.
Further, “I am Legion” works to reestablish and expound on the melodic basis of “Tabernacle Of,” and does so effectively, so that immediately Atala seem to be reaching even further out with the second half of the album. Time, then, for a radical redirect away from the expected, and that’s just what “Wilted Leaf” brings. At 3:59, it’s the shortest inclusion on Labyrinth of Ashmedai, and though awash in echo, it’s also the rawest since “Grains of Sand” at the outset, with shouts crawling upward from the depths of the mix barely decipherable in the riff-led torrent surrounding, and even a more fuzz-toned solo in the back half does little to take away from the sense of assault. This also is part of a larger plan, however, and closer “Infernal” — which is neither the catchiest nor the heaviest song here but might be the record’s greatest aesthetic accomplishment all the same; also bearing some of the hallmarks of a YOB influence in its initial rollout — takes hold with an immediate shift toward melody. Stratton seems to loosely touch on Electric Wizard in the verse’s bounce, but is ultimately headed elsewhere, toward more individualized fare that represents one last considered shove into new territory for Atala.
A final chorus underscores the point as they pass the halfway mark and turn to an instrumental finish that, rather than give itself to an overblown payoff, slows down, gets quieter and eases the listener’s way out with a stretch of bass and drone and residual effects, and though they’ve managed to stave off pretense for the duration, Atala have all the same given their audience a glimpse of the realization of the potential they’ve shown all along. Does that mean they’re finished growing? I don’t think so and I hope not, but it does mean that the expansion of their approach pays significant dividends in these tracks already. And yeah, volume doesn’t hurt when it comes to the overall listening experience, but at whatever level one might take it on, Labyrinth of Ashmedai successfully leads through the maze it creates. - The Obelisk