Atala - The Bearer Of Light (LP)
Catalog number: SALT OF THE EARTH - NONE
The Bearer of Light is Atala‘s fourth full-length. Issued by Salt of the Earth Records, it follows 2017’s Labyrinth of Ashmedai (review here), 2016’s Shaman’s Path of the Serpent (review here) and a 2015 self-titled debut (review here), and while its predecessor seemed to follow a pattern set forth by the second album, in style as well as method, The Bearer of Light‘s seven-track/43-minute run is marked by a few notable changes. The production is a big one. The self-titled was produced by Scott Reeder, and the next two by Billy frickin’ Anderson, so the fact that guitarist/vocalist Kyle Stratton (who also did the cover art) took the reins himself this time around with a purposeful intent toward rawness is not to be overlooked. Indeed, The Bearer of Light is largely cloaked in its barebones recording, with Stratton‘s distorted guitar leading the charge cut through by Jeff Tedtaotao‘s sometimes-tinny snare and the dirt-coated low-end in Dave Horn‘s bass.
There’s still some opportunity for melody to shine through, as happens on the 3:45 side B cut and shortest track overall, “Venomous Lure” — also one of several songs to begin with a spoken sample, very much in ’90s sludge fashion — or even opener “Desolate Lands,” but much of the character of the record overall derives from movements like “Upon the Altar” and the threat-conveyance in “Won’t Subside,” which stretches to 11 minutes and layers its vocals in blown-out shouts over a lumbering, grueling central riff, like if earliest YOB had disappeared in the Mojave and come back hallucinating monsters from the exposure. Born of and depicting a harsh but beautiful landscape, the Twentynine Palms, California-based three piece indeed still qualify as a “desert band,” but their take on what that means is a noted departure from the laid-back punk-derived fuzz that has become typical of desert rock as a genre. Their trip is meaner on the whole, and particularly in the crashes of “Naive Demur” and the gutturalism of “Upon the Altar” is more kin to Crowbar than Kyuss. So be it. Some bands are suited to being contrary, and Atala hit that mark well on The Bearer of Light.
Though also structured for vinyl — kind of a given these days for heavy music — one can find summary of the point of view through which The Bearer of Light is working in its trailmarker tracks, by which I mean its opener, centerpiece and closer. Launching with “Desolate Lands” and closing with the acoustic “Dark Skies,” Atala puts “Sun Worship” at the heart of The Bearer of Light, which would seem to be no coincidence given the flow of the release overall. And while that view doesn’t necessarily account for the perceived sociopolitical reckoning of “Won’t Subside” or “Naive Demur,” or even “Dark Skies” somewhat, it stresses the importance of the desert itself as part of the character of the work, which it is, whatever other topics might be discussed in the not-always-easily-deciphered lyrics.
“Sun Worship” begins with a sample of George Carlin from 1999’s You are All Diseased talking about becoming a sun worshiper as opposed to following Christianity and then undertakes a massive intro roll with far-back semi-spoken, maybe throat-sung vocals before a count-in transitions to the verse riff proper, clean vocals there meeting head-on with a meaner chorus soon enough. There’s a kind of chant in the second half of the song, which seems to purposefully devolve ahead of its fadeout, moving into the more structured “Venomous Lure” and subsequently the long-gone-not-coming-back foray of “Won’t Subside.” Certainly the stage is set for these transitions earlier in The Bearer of Light throughout “Desolate Lands,” “Upon the Altar” and “Naive Demur,” but at the same time one finds footing in the beginning, middle and end, the willfulness with which Atala dig deeper into their approach in this batch of material isn’t to be understated. Though somewhat obscured by the production — which is as close as I come to a qualm with it — that breadth is there in the material, in the interplay between melody and outright nastiness, and in the coherence of their craft and general reach of their sound. Stratton‘s fuzz lead alone in the opener is enough of a hook to capture the listener’s attention, never mind the rumble and roll that surrounds.
Subtle volume swells back the acoustic guitar of “Dark Skies,” with a rhythmic strum taking the place that otherwise might be held by percussion and soulful vocals overtop, reminding that one element Atala have never lacked has been conviction. They present that perhaps most boldly of all on The Bearer of Light, finding a way to commune with the desert without giving themselves over to stylistic cliché or losing the progressive thread of their work to this point, keeping that feel of searching for something in themselves and in their songs that has helped define them up to now. With the turn of production, it becomes more difficult to see where Atala might head next time around, if they’ll return to work with someone else at the helm or take the lessons of this collection forward and continue in the fashion of DIY recordmaking. I don’t know, but what feels most essential to stress is that The Bearer of Light is more than a test of a new production method.
It’s that too, to be sure, but it also brings out Atala‘s widest range of songwriting, and sees them able to handle themselves no matter which direction a given piece might go, whether it’s the extremity of “Upon the Altar” or the relative accessibility of “Venomous Lure” and the organically delivered finish of “Dark Skies.” Their output remains considered and rife with perspective instrumentally as well as lyrically, and their chemistry has never sounded as fluid as it does on The Bearer of Light, which is doubly impressive given that the sound of the album is so clearly intended to lean toward live performance. Four records deep over a five-year span, Atala are still growing, still pushing themselves to places they haven’t been, and one suspects that might just be the case no matter how long and how far they go. - The Obelisk