Reviews

Atlas Shrugged, Don’t Look Back in Anger (Trip Machine Laboratories, 2013)

Despite having been pathetically late to the game on Atlas Shrugged, I've been eagerly awaiting the Trip Machine Laboratories release of this discography CD for years and years now, so for it to finally show up towards the tail end of last year was quite a gift. The band was primarily active from 1992 - 1998 (and had some lineup crossover between comparably impressive acts GMK and Ghidrah), experiencing a handful of quick reunions spread out across the decade that followed. But beyond a compilation appearance or two, I didn't really explore their music until the early- to mid-2000s—at which point I was immediately floored, and kicked myself for having overlooked their work in the '90s.

Don't Look Back in Anger collects 19 tracks (plus an unlisted little instrumental jam that's surprisingly badass) for about an hour and 15 minutes' worth of exceptional metallic (post-)hardcore that's heavily inspired by that Absolution/Burn type of foundation. From the opening liner notes:

...we chose to take that anger and rage found in our beloved NY hardcore scene and add melody and deep rooted emotion to it. There were no songs about gang violence, being stabbed in the back, or political policies. Instead topics of alienation, lost love, and the emotional train wreck that was our lives were set forth in the songs we crafted.

The recordings appear here in reverse chronological order:

  • Smile Songs 7" (recorded in 2011/2012, but written during the band's '90s era)
  • Vigilante Songs sessions (recorded in 1998)
  • We Don't Stand a Chance and Old Familiar Face 7"s (recorded in 1997)
  • split 7" with New Day Rising (recorded in 1996)
  • The Last Season LP (recorded in 1993)

This emphasizes just how impressively consistent Atlas Shrugged has been over the years—from the efficiently rugged production values to the quality of the songwriting. Pretty much the only songs from the band's entire recorded output that don't totally blow me away are the loose, freaky experimental jams, such as "Chicano U-Turn" and "Creepo Dumpo". Otherwise the material is dominated by texturally layered, intricate arrangements—loaded with those slick arpeggiated riffs that I always flip out over, churning rhythmic grooves laced with ringing dissonance and interesting chord phrasings, and backed by energetic drumming with flashes of jazzy flare. They really traversed a variety of genres: Always heavy (but never passing the point of "too metal"), yet always melodic—occasionally enough to flirt with "emo" leanings. And as much as you can immediately pinpoint the Absolution/Burn influence, Atlas Shrugged's writing twists it into a really identifiable niche of its own. Darker, more somber, perhaps.

Kicking off the "new" material is "Smile Song", one of the last compositions the band was working on at the time of its initial demise, and more than anything else the convincing hints of singing during the chorus prove they've still "got it". I'd definitely be curious to hear what they'd come up with today. The epic "My Kingdom Purgatory" follows. Dating back to the era of the band's first demo, the tune was never recorded at the time. Well, better late than never, 'cause it's another keeper—check out that chilling tapping during the intro!

Vigilante Songs consisted of re-recordings of a couple of mid-'90s gems alongside an outstanding cover of Altercation's "Vigilante Song". The updated version of "The Haze Control" (my all-time favorite Atlas Shrugged track, here's a mediocre vinyl rip of the original) is the key focal point, though. Something about this song always hits me right from the start. Great riffs, I really dig the lyrics, etc. Boosting the production quality of an already forceful composition, the '98 version totally smokes.

The highlights of the We Don't Stand a Chance/Old Familiar Face period would be "Hellenback" and "Darkness"—each with a little more of a driving, hard-hitting pulse. The former driven by awesomely plunky basslines (so indicative of the '90s) and surging, discordant chord progressions; the latter offering another epic, emotional intro with winding riffs and touches of jazziness.

The original version of "Rainmaker" (later re-recorded for Vigilante Songs) suits me just fine: More pulsing bass, a great example of those slick riffs I'm always raving about, and a powerful vocal performance to boot.

Going all the way back to their debut LP, The Last Season, the material boasted a hint more of a metallic chug. But, again, a higher level of creativity was very obviously present in the top-notch songwriting: Opening with the aforementioned "The Haze Control", followed by the stellar "Another Season", on through "Tribe of a Man".

But it's not just the music: We're dealing with excellent packaging/design as well. Everything is printed with a matte finish (always a plus); and the 18-page booklet is loaded with collages of tons of photos and flyers, all of the lyrics, and killer liner notes. In addition to a general overview of Atlas Shrugged as a whole, there are great anecdotes about each particular phase of their development—including tidbits surrounding the recording sessions/releases, etc. Awesome.

It's no secret that I'm a huge fan of retrospective discographies in general, but far beyond the average assemblage of music, every single aspect of this particular collection is executed exactly how it should be—and with great attention to detail. Before No Echo was so much as an idea, I had already agreed to "come out of retirement" just to write this review: That's how excited I am that Don't Look Back in Anger has finally materialized. Atlas Shrugged has proven to be one of the most underrated hardcore bands of the '90s, so hopefully this disc will help their music continue to live on and fight for the respect it truly deserves.

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