It’s hard to think of a time that’s been better for intelligent, progressive alt-rock than right now. Biffy Clyro have been leading the charge for a while, but Arcane Roots have proven the highs it can hit numerous times over the past few years, while bands like Press To MECO and Black Peaks are currently riding the waves of enormous and well-deserved hype. It also says a lot that Atlas : Empire have drawn comparisons to all of those acts at one point or another, a band who became known off the back of their EP releases with this debut full-length serving as almost an expansion of sorts of their 2015 release The Stratosphere Beneath Our Feet Pt. 1 (For The Satellites). And even just from the information that surrounds them, the aforementioned comparisons already seem to be holding water, not only in the towering scope of their writing but in the conceptual exploration of humanity’s reliance on technology, and the impact made when technology is removed altogether.
If that all sounds incredibly weighty and dramatically over-the-top for a band who are largely still trying to make themselves heard, it’s because it is, and that also serves as a handy descriptor for The Stratosphere Beneath Our Feet as a whole. This is a prime case of a band reaching way beyond their station, and to Atlas : Empire’s credit, the results are almost miraculously solid all the way through, but especially for a debut, there’s a serious amount of fat that needs trimming here that can leave this album feeling unfortunately bloated. Again though, compared to some who’d fall before they even get going properly, Altas : Empire aren’t hindered too drastically that it becomes unlistenable; there aren’t many bands who’d be able to wedge in an extended, instrumental post-rock piece like The Entire History Of You as the centrepiece on their debut and still have it work. Compare that to something like the open-ended swirls of As Yet Unwritten or the buildup of Gethsemane that’s left panting for breath though, and it becomes clear where the greater refinement or relative easing back could take place.
That said, there’s a certain quality to The Stratosphere Beneath Our Feet that does appear to earn what Atlas : Empire are going for here, namely in how the tone and atmosphere are so deftly crafted all the way through. Theirs is a particularly bleak, dystopian vision within the context of the album, so tracks like The Year Of The Four Emperors experiment with crunchier, darker guitar passages to easily match up, and a vocal performance from Steven Gillies that rings as haunted and downtrodden amidst the wall of sound in his way. In terms of this synthesis of ideas, it’s arguably what Atlas : Empire can rise above so many others, namely because their concepts feel fleashed out in almost every way, and executed with the musical skill to show it off more effectively. It’s hard to deny that latter point as well, manifested in the guitars and drums that are complex enough to mirror the underlying turbulence on a track like Our Hands Part The Waves, but remain deeply grounded in the melodic focus that’s seen plenty of their influences rise up the ranks considerably on It’s All In The Reflexes and Hostess. As daunting as it can seem with track sizes as implacable as they are, this isn’t a particularly difficult album to get through and comprehend, simply because Atlas : Empire have the commendable command of traditional alt-rock’s melody to allow the core of a fantastic album to shine through an exterior that could do with some pruning back.
And that’s primarily what each one of The Stratosphere Beneath Our Feet’s issues stem back to. On paper, there’s nothing wrong with the route that Atlas : Empire are going down, but this way of doing it doesn’t quite hit the same level as Black Peaks or Press To MECO have this year; the value of keeping their songs concise is ultimately what made them as great as they were, a tactic that Atlas : Empire would be wise to adopt. Then again, virtually everything else points in the direction of a band who currently sit on the very brink of joining that prestigious coterie, with the technicality, ambition and melodic control to really do some fantastic things in a liberated alt-rock scene. That’s the impression that this album gives, and with a bit more tweaking of the formula, it won’t be a case of if that’ll happen, but when.
For fans of: Black Peaks, Arcane Roots, Vennart
Words by Luke Nuttall
‘The Stratosphere Beneath Our Feet’ by Atlas : Empire is out now.