Some bands are content to explore the same sounds until they implode upon themselves. These bands are remembered as consistent and reliable, and turn in some veritable classics. Bad Religion is one of those bands, and I fucking love Bad Religion. But other bands are more exploratory, changing and evolving their sound over multiple releases. Fugazi is one of those bands, so is Bomb the Music Industry!, and hey, I love those bands too. Atlas At Last has joined the ranks of the exploratory, drinking in influences from outside genres and beginning construction on a storied and interesting catalog.
Atlas At Last’s debut self-titled was a riveting take on emo, post-hardcore, and melodic punk. The pieces fit together in a way that made me wonder how this sound hadn’t ever existed. Part Avail, part Fugazi, and part Rites of Spring– it was as emotional as it was explosive, all reigned in with impressive musicianship throughout. A Composition Of Functions is a continuation of that in a lot of ways, and if it weren’t any more than that, it’d still be impressive. But here they go further with their sound, pushing into the realm of screamo and black metal (in varying degrees of subtlety) along with a new sense of performance to supplement their chaos.
“Function” is made up of of vocals performed at the edge of hoarseness, where singing becomes screaming when pushed and it all sounds like the microphone is being pushed as hard as the singer’s vocal cords. It’s the shortest on the EP, but it is also a perfect and succinct introduction to the ideas held within. A Composition Of Functions is a cohesive piece centered around its concept in such a way that it shouldn’t be seen as anything less when compared to a full-length. For me, the lyrics bring to mind the human body and anatomy, muscles and nerve endings guiding the physicality of our interactions with social language learned subconsciously and innately forcing us into a box that is very human and outside of our control to break free. These learned and innate functions complete us and lead us down paths we don’t acknowledge because they’re taken for granted. They’re responsible for the good and the bad in our lives, but ultimately, they’re us. A Composition Of Functions is about becoming aware of the subconscious data and executions that we make everyday. It’s about regaining control over our biology. And by exploring this idea within the context of punk rock, Atlas At Last solidifies the idea through the chaos and catharsis that comes through in every chord and scream the genre has in its bones. But in an almost meta turn, their wide range of influences mirrors the biological defiance in their lyrics, with music that refuses to conform to any one sound.
“Splendid” is the album’s first big song, with huge sounding riffs backed by massive, heavy bass. It has a skramz intensity to it, exploding into ear-chafing noise and then retracting back into minimalism. The repeated refrain of “my teeth are sharp and crooked” are quiet and sing-song the first time we hear it, and by the next time they pop up we’ve been through another explosion, this time accompanied with black metal drumming and a more declarative take on the words. Human emotion is wrapped up in tone and context, and because of Atlas At Last’s abstract take on lyricism, we often miss out on the hard facts of context, but their use of tone goes a long way to flesh out their ideas, allowing our natural knowledge of social cues take over and deliver substance. This is more than music at play in their work, it’s acting. It’s performance at it’s finest. We, as listeners forget that the vocalist of a band is more than just another instrument, he or she has the difficult task to not only sing the words, but to perform them.
The reason Atlas At Last is so successful in their expanding sound on A Composition of Functions is because each influence they call upon, they master. On “Compassion,” they go from hipster black metal beats and darkly trilling chords, to throat shredding shrieks and swirling guitar melodies of emo and its offshoots– it’s all executed so well and segues so well into their broader sound that it comes across as just being another part of their DNA.
The EP culminates in “In Habitat,” a song that starts soft and tense and combusts at will. The staccato bursts of thrashing chords coupled with those tense, Dischord-esque howls bring a sense of just pure upheaval, of emotions and restraint– all cast aside in the name of music. In its finest moments it brings out that raw and primal disregard punk rock seems to be able to synthesize so effortlessly. But moreso, its melodies and musicianship make it feel the disregard is grand and triumphant. “In Habitat” is a joyous shedding.
I’ve always believed punk rock is about approaching music from a perspective of raw and rebellious creativity. At its beating heart, punk is the kid who doesn’t know how to play an instrument, but wants to write a song anyways, because it’d be cool. Eventually, those of us who want to, do learn to play a little bit, and we may even write a couple songs and hopefully don’t lose that same sense of enthusiasm for music and discovery along the way. Atlas At Last push themselves on A Composition Of Functions as musicians, but also artists. They play like they’re the band they want to hear, and they do it through a work that feels complete and cohesive. But, at the center of it, there is still that kid trying to do something cool. He’s grown up a little bit and gotten a little more intense, but along the way he learned that something cool can be ambitious and beautiful, and we’re all the better for it.