ATHEIST: ELEMENTS (1993)
1) Green; 2) Water; 3) Samba Briza; 4) Air; 5) Displacement; 6) Animal; 7) Mineral; 8) Fire; 9) Fractal Point; 10) Earth; 11) See You Again; 12) Elements.
According to some sources, we owe the existence of Elements only to the band's contractual obligations: having disbanded in 1992, Atheist came together one last time (or so it seemed at the moment) only to put this album together so that they could get out of their contract with Metal Blade records without a serious headache. In addition, Kelly Shaefer had developed carpal tunnel syndrome and was unable to play lead guitar, so the band had to recruit a third guitarist, Frank Emmi, to take over fifty percent of lead playing duties. Hence, conditions for creativity flow were definitely less than ideal.
That said, Elements sounds quite far removed from a generic, disinterested contractual obligation. As may be noticed by just glancing at the song titles, it is a concept album — other than songs dedicated to each element in particular and all of them at once, the band throws the notions of «animal» and «mineral» into the mix, and starts things out with a general eco-anthem (ʽGreenʼ), although, actually, the majority of the songs here have an ecological undercurrent: it would be fairly hard to find someone representing the interests of Greenpeace more accurately than this bunch of death metal warriors. One notch scored for dedication.
Second, of the three «classic era» Atheist albums, Elements represents the biggest departure from the formula — a disappointment for those stark fans who'd want more of the same, but a bit of a relief for the reviewer, who finally has to withdraw the most troublesome criticism: that of all the songs merging together into one big, unsegmentable lump. This problem is now overcome in a simple, but working way: many of the songs are separated by small interludes that show the band branching out in different directions — ʽSamba Brizaʼ features the band's dexterous rhythm section backed by guest pianist David Smadbeck; ʽDisplacementʼ and ʽFractal Pointʼ present a couple of deeply-distorted, but lyrical slow guitar solos; and ʽSee You Againʼ has some pretty, echo-laden acoustic picking. Nothing too amazing, but yes, we do need these delimiters.
As for the songs themselves, most of the textbook thrash attitude has by now dissipated completely. Where, in the past, they would alternate jazzy time signatures with breakneck chugga-chugga passages, they now consistently keep the odd signatures throughout the pieces — never a dull moment for the drummer boy. «Catchiness» still hardly appears on the menu, and, for that reason, the new approach is not necessarily better than the old one: the themes are still quite hard to memorize, and the emotional effect is completely uniform regardless of whether they are singing about water, air, fire, or earth — this is probably the biggest conceptual mistake of this conceptual album. Then again, they are not singing of the nice spiritual properties of these elements, but rather of various catastrophes, man-made or natural, associated with them, and catastrophes are always catastrophes, be they floods, quakes, or fires, so that could be one possible cop-out.
We do have more individual markers placed on the songs than we used to. The Latin acoustic part in ʽWaterʼ, for instance, which does not so much replace the metal basis of the song as it flows in and out of it (flows, hear that?). The odd little guitar-led merry-go-round in the bridge section of ʽWindʼ, whirling around the speakers (whirling, mind you). The «siren»-mode guitar playing on ʽFireʼ; the monkey laugh guitar imitation on ʽAnimalʼ — these are all mostly just minor flourishes, but they are at least worth a mention. The best guitar leads, by the way, are on ʽMineralʼ, where each solo is introduced by a gorgeously ominous set of trills that I'm only too happy to add to my very small collection of «finger-flashing bits with genuine evocative power». Granted, I am not too sure what it is exactly that they evoke, but does it really matter? That's why we have the word «evocative» in the lexicon in the first place.
It is hardly a big surprise that, overall, Elements tends to be rated poorer than its predecessors, but that is just because it is a little harder to headbang to it — you have to learn quite specific headbanging moves, and it can take a long time. The band members, judging by the live backlog they would perform upon the later reunion, never thought all that much of it, either — perhaps they, too, were sorry about going so far in the «Latin / jazz» direction that the «thrash» sign all but disappeared from the horizon. But on the large scale of things, these arguments seem rather petty — after all, just because the speed rates are slightly lower and the drum parts slightly more syncopated does not mean that Elements does not rock just as hard. I give it the same thumbs up as everything else, and I appreciate the will to change, particularly when it is manifested on an album they did not even intend to make in the first place.