Retro-Review: ‘Elements’ by Atheist

It not sure what Atheist was going for with their third album Elements.

On one hand, you have death metal pushed to its most technical and avante garde. On the other hand, you have a lot of “what is this even doing on this album?”

Elements would be the last album by the band until 2010’s Jupiter. It followed their acclaimed 1991 album Unquestionable Presence, which also included my favorite song by them “Enthralled in Essence.”

I was actually introduced to Atheist through a compilation called Rock Hard Presents: Monsters of Death Metal.

Included on that album are several other bands I have or will review. Those include Gorguts, Morgoth, Immolation, Morbid Angel, Death and Dismember.

Anyway, Elements came out at a time when death metal seemed to be in decline. Atheist would disband the following year, reforming in 2006.

Atheist is by vocalist Kelly Shaefer, who also plays rhythm guitar. Shaefer’s vocals are not the typical guttural growl associated with death metal. Instead, he tends to have a higher pitched snarl, which leaves his vocals pretty understandable. After Atheist, he moved on to some non-death metal projects which he used a clearer voice.

On bass guitar is Tony Choy, who has carved himself a reputation for his playing not only with Atheist, but also the bands Cynic and Pestilence.

Rounding things off are lead guitarists Rand Burkey and Frank Emmi along with Josh Greenbaum on drums and congas.

So, how does one follow up an album like Unquestionable Presence?

The album

Atheist dives straight into the jazz-influenced metal they are known for with “Green,” which sees them striking power chords and doing guitar solos one minute and plucking their strings and changing the tempo the next. It kind of sums up what you get with Atheist — a lot of unpredictability.

“Green” sets the tone for the album. With Elements, Atheist has pretty much chucked conventional songwriting out the window. Their music is complicated and hard to appreciate on the first listen.  

Atheist like to throw, pardon the pun, different elements in their songs. An example is “Water” where you have metal side by side with some Spanish-style melodies.

My personal favorite tracks on Elements include “Animal,” a melodious number with some pretty cool vocalizations by Shaefer and some pretty great bass fingering from Choy, and the track that follows it, “Mineral.” “Mineral” is pretty tonal with a good rhythm to it, making it one of the catchier tunes on the album. It’s also one of the three best songs, matching animal in its creativity.

Rounding off the standout tracks are “Earth” — a groovy, yet challenging track, which incorporates some drum machine (i think) for a few danceable seconds — and the title track “Elements,” which is almost a straightforward metal song.

There are some head scratching moments on Elements as well. An example of which is “Samba Briza,” which like the title implies, is a samba song. I have no idea why it’s on there. It doesn’t fit with anything on the album and there’s nothing that really distinguishes it from any other samba song out there.

There’s also a few short instrumentals scattered throughout. There’s nothing technically wrong with them, but they don’t seem to add anything to the overall experience of the album.

The verdict

Elements is a pretty good album. If I ran and bought it off the shelf 25 years ago, though, it would have probably been one of those albums I listened to once and set aside to gather dust.

Of course, I was a teenager then. As an adult, I have a bit more patience to sit and appreciate the nuance of it all. It’s definitely a challenging listen, but “challenging” doesn’t mean bad.

Anyway, I’ll recommend it to those who have an ear that likes to be challenged. For others, it may be a bit too “out there” so to speak.

 

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