Underappreciated Chicago metal monarchs the Atlas Moth have been incubating their new album, Coma Noir, for nearly four years, and this week their dormancy comes to a welcome end. The band started out more than a decade ago playing a hybrid of psychedelic stoner rock and sludge metal, but every time they return they have a larger wingspan, dazzling and terrible in a new way. Their latest release is ambitious in scope, and its songs hang loosely on a cinematic framework, inspired by a dark and subversive drama—one that exists as much in the lyricists’ heads as it does in the music itself, and thus hints at more than it reveals.
For Coma Noir, guitarists Stravros Giannopoulos, David Kush, and Andrew Ragin and bassist Alex Klein (all four contribute vocals, and Ragin adds keys and synths) are joined by new drummer Mike Miczek. In all their incarnations they’ve been a terrific live act, heavy as hell and wonderfully tight—an asset to any bill they’re on, whether they’re playing alongside the dark synthwave of Perturbator or the slow southern steel of Crowbar. This album cycle promises to treat the band well, as they receive tributes paid to them in food and drink. Dark Matter is about to release a Coffee Noir blend, and Brimming Horn Meadery in Delaware will introduce an Atlas Moth mead flavor in the fall. Plus they’re literally the flavor of the month at Kuma’s—the Atlas Moth burger, on the menu at the Belmont location, is piled with Italian roast beef, hot Italian sausage, giardiniera marinara, smoked provolone, and fried basil, all on a toasted pretzel bun with garlic butter.
The Atlas Moth, Royal Thunder, Mirrors for Psychic Warfare
Sat 2/10, 8:30 PM, Empty Bottle, 1035 N. Western, $15, 21+
Though the Atlas Moth released one song on a split single with KEN Mode in late 2015, they kept us waiting for two agonizing years before dropping a hint of bigger things to come: a black-and-white video for the title track of Coma Noir, released in December. Its cinematography nods to the album cover’s classic noir imagery, which evokes Chicago’s Mafia past—both its brutal truth and its glamorized iconography. A shadowy gangster beckons us into darkness. Is the man hidden beneath that hat brim a hero or a villain? Coma Noir isn’t quite a concept album, but the songs do follow a sketchy story arc—Giannopoulos says there’s a narrative buried in them, about a private detective and a sinister global crime cult. There’s never been a bad time to tell that kind of tale, but our moment seems especially ripe for one.
The band didn’t intend to follow in the footsteps of, say, Queensryche, Coheed and Cambria, or Dawnbringer, whose concept albums could almost be rewritten as screenplays, but Giannopoulos says the story that provides the skeleton of Coma Noir is more visible in the finished product than he expected. “I personally wrote the lyrics from the perspective of a cult leader,” he says. “Almost playing a character. If you listen and read the lyrics with that in mind, I feel you can pick up on how antagonistic I’m portrayed as. The overall idea of the story was basically ‘Maltese Falcon with a horror element.’ A detective is brought a case by a mysterious woman in regards to this supposed doomsday cult, Coma Noir.”
Giannopoulos doesn’t want to go into any more detail, because there are plans to further develop the story, both as a radio play (with the help of filmmaker Ryan Oliver, who directed the video for “Coma Noir”) and as a graphic novel.
This ominous figure who haunts the album’s soundscapes is no mere casino skimmer and rival whacker—this is the Nemesis itself. Crime of all kinds stalks Coma Noir—crime against the self, crime against humanity, crime against the planet. In the album’s universe, the ultimate enemy is a cult of cosmic nihilism. Its themes are more sweeping and outward focused than those of the bad-trip inner journey the Atlas Moth described with 2014’s The Old Believer. These songs have different points of view and different settings. The slick, shimmering keyboards of “The Streets of Bombay” suggest a futuristic Philip K. Dick dystopia, its neon glitz attracting the damned as well as the global elites who decadently dine high above streets full of black-market trade. On “Galactic Brain” the band bluntly declare in unusually clear and intelligible vocals that “The stakes are higher than they were when we were young.”
The Atlas Moth hover over the brutalized world of their stories like a denouncing god, a narrator who’s omniscient but not omnipotent. Their lyrical sensibility is elegant and at times almost romantic. The voice of that narrator seems especially eloquent in dark cultist mode, as on the title track, when it introduces the seductions of malign power:
With eyes like coffins and a heart encased in rust
I can taste the gunpowder on her lips and the serpent’s touch
We shall testify to the breaking down as one
Our allegiance to this scorched earth as home
Coma Noir is the Atlas Moth’s first album for Los Angeles label Prosthetic Records as well as their first to benefit from the ministrations of superproducer Sanford Parker. Giannopoulos hates recording—it’s his least favorite part of being in a band—but he says Parker energizes him and makes the process fun: “His sense of humor and attitude really fits with ours, and he picked up on our strengths immediately and really made us focus on getting the best out of us,” Giannopoulos says. “Yet I never found myself pissed or frustrated.”
Parker’s crisp style also opens up avenues of sight into the Atlas Moth’s dark miasma. On “Galactic Brain,” clearly an updated Black Sabbath-type visionary cut, the production shows off the devious, plot-twisty arrangement without sacrificing weight. And on “Actual Human Blood,” where jagged guitars sound like the blades of an infinite number of surgical saws laying bare violent truths, not even the savage density of the central riffs drowns out the dark poetry in the lyrics: “Now we defect from ourselves / Grifters seeking orchids in bones.”
Giannopoulos splits lyric writing with Kush (the Atlas Moth’s “clean” singer, though that’s a relative term here). As dystopian as Coma Noir can be, it’s far less claustrophobic and less trapped in individual despair than The Old Believer—Giannopoulos characterizes it as “definitely an us-against-them type of record. Empowering and ‘never give up’ vibe.” The choice to make a less personal record was deliberate, and the two lyricists bounced ideas off each other constantly as Coma Noir took shape.
To make a record of resistance, you need to have a sense of what you’re resisting, and the demons of Coma Noir come in small personal sizes as well as cosmic ones—”Last Transmission From the Late, Great Planet Earth,” for example, invokes the specter of climate change and the desolate death of the planet itself. (The title refers to Hal Lindsey’s 1970 best-seller, but its apocalypse was biblical—inspiring many other terrible books and even worse politics.) Tortured, screaming voices fill out the chanting ending of the track, but it’s not as hopeless as it sounds: “We will find out on our own / Which path we shall embark” at least suggests that humanity still has the autonomy to avert such a fate.
The real enemy here, the one Coma Noir seems devoted to struggling against at all costs, is hopeless fatalism. And the music itself—seething, unsettled, oozing with life—provides the antidote to frozen apathy.
The album is militant in its call to rise and resist stagnation and complacency, but it’s not harsh or stoic in its sound. Instead it’s generous and sensual, its constant twists and turns provoking delight at each audacious and flawlessly executed flourish. Coma Noir didn’t have to be as rich and complex and surprising as it is, and I found myself repeatedly feeling something like gratitude for the surplus the Atlas Moth has built into it. Even at the record’s most terrifying moments, the songs still reward the lizard brain with enough pleasure to keep you listening: the flirty little arabesque underneath the core riff of “The Frozen Crown,” for instance, or the galloping jam and leisurely guitar solo that draw out the end of the otherwise jarring and aggro “Smiling Knife.”
If we’re all held in the grip of forces that don’t have our best interests at heart (if they’re even aware of our existence at all), then the drive to resist is a good in and of itself. But even as the Atlas Moth document that struggle, they can’t seem to restrain themselves from revealing that they’re having a fantastically good time making music.
The world is enduring a trial whose verdict has yet to come clear, and artists give voice to it in all sorts of forms—including albums, graphic novels, and radio plays. Just because we’re constantly at war whether we like it or not doesn’t mean beautiful things shouldn’t still be beautiful for their own sake.
Giannopoulos describes the several years that passed between The Old Believer and Coma Noir as “a trying time period, but necessary. Not all of it was bad, not all of it was good, but it all needed to happen ’cause this was the record we were supposed to make.” v
The Atlas Moth celebrate the release of Coma Noir at the Empty Bottle on Saturday, February 10. Further enhancing the appeal of the show are openers Mirrors for Psychic Warfare, a collaboration between Sanford Parker and Scott Kelly of Neurosis—their haunting, abstract music is occult in the literal sense of “hidden,” conveying its meaning through suggestion and menace. Surprisingly, the Atlas Moth have never toured with Parker in any of his projects, but after this gig they hit the road for 11 dates (ending in Atlanta) with Royal Thunder and Mirrors for Psychic Warfare.