I still often think about Atom & His Package, the one-man, one-sequencer band that charmed and annoyed the U.S. punk scene from 1996 till 2003—that is, mostly before I knew how to find my way into that world. I love the novelty factor of the act: bespectacled Philadelphia punk Adam “Atom” Goren would yelp over lo-fi synth melodies in front of the same crowds who’d come to see noisy rock bashed out on the usual guitar, bass, and drums.
In the early 90s, Goren had played in a conventional pop-punk band called Fracture. In an August 1995 column for Maximum Rocknroll, contributor Ray Lujan wrote that Fracture’s self-titled album “puts these guys up there with the Fat Wreckords [sic] big boys” in the same breath as he praised a Bay Area Jimmy Eat World show.
The punk underground was going through a major transition as Goren launched his solo shtick as Atom & His Package. The breakout success of Green Day’s 1994 album Dookie caused major rifts as hard-line champions of DIY went on the offensive against what they saw as the encroachment of major-label forces. In January 1994, Maximum Rocknroll founding editor Tim Yohannan announced that the zine would excise emo, posthardcore, metal, and other music that didn’t meet the collective’s definition of punk from its reviews section; five months later, the punk bible would publish a scathing indictment of major-label business practices.
The zines that emerged in reaction to MRR’s new editorial stance—including HeartattaCk and Punk Planet—would revisit the question of what defines punk with a more open-minded intellectual vigor, but even they weren’t prepared for what happened when Goren got his hands on a Yamaha QY700 sequencer and set about making his joyful, cheeky songs, which were often about his circle of friends. Given that much of the scene was at that point willing to argue about whether, say, Michigan posthardcore band Current conformed to some idealized notion of what punk should sound like, Goren’s irreverent synth sounds were bound to push people’s buttons.
This is part of what I admire about Atom & His Package. Goren could get under punks’ skin because he knew the scene as well as someone who’d been around to pick up the Misfits’ “Cough” b/w “Cool” when it came out in 1977. He could see its fault lines and all the aspects of the community that weren’t kosher, and he knew the best way to expose them. To me, Atom & His Package is definitively punk, because even though Goren’s sound and approach were glaringly out of place in the scene, every one of his songs argues for his inclusion in it. His best-known tune, “Punk Rock Academy,” isn’t just an homage to the outcasts that punk is supposed to be for—it also points out, with love, that not everyone is made to feel welcome.
When I think back on this era of punk, I think it’s better because Goren was part of it. And he certainly makes me feel welcome, partly thanks to our shared religious and cultural heritage; all his playful trolling and irreverent jokes about scene politics are shot through with a kind of scruffy Jewish sensibility that I rarely find in punk. I can hear Goren’s influence in a lot of new music whose roots extend down to his old scene; every deranged electronic flourish or in-joke in a fifth-wave emo song reminds me of Atom & His Package, even when the synth tones don’t match.
Today I find myself specifically thinking about the cover of Youth of Today’s “Break Down the Walls” from the 1997 Atom & His Package album A Society of People Named Elihu. I’m not a fan of Youth of Today, but for a long time I couldn’t put a finger on what bugged me about these pugilistic Connecticut hardcore figureheads. Reader contributor Sam McPheeters, in his 2020 book Mutations, articulates a lot of my anxieties about the clean-cut conservatisim of Youth of Today and the Youth Crew subculture that emerged as the band became an underground force in the 1980s: Youth Crew, he writes, offered “the fun of hardcore with none of the risk.” Goren flips the script with his tinny take on “Break Down the Walls,” undercutting the self-seriousness in Ray Cappo’s straight-edge slogans with his loopy, nasal delivery. I wish I could’ve seen Goren play this song to a room full of incredulous punks—whether it pissed off the crowd or provided the catharsis of a good laugh where one had long been needed, he certainly found a way to put the risk back into it.
The Atom & His Package cover of Youth of Today’s “Break Down the Walls”
In January 2021, New Jersey indie label Don Giovanni digitally reissued A Society of People Named Elihu and Atom & His Package’s self-titled debut. And the label has continued to work with Goren: in December, it issued the self-titled debut from Dead Best, Goren’s new project with lifelong friend Brian Sokel, who used to play in an emo band called Franklin. Sokel is partially to blame for Atom & His Package; as Goren told Dan Ozzi for a Vice story in 2016, he started writing solo songs to annoy his friends in Franklin, who then asked him to open their shows. Dead Best has a pretty different aesthetic from Atom & His Package—it doesn’t sound like it comes from a digital box—but I like it just the same.
Adam Goren and his friend Brian Sokel released their album debut as Dead Best last month.
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