Creature with the Atom Brain - Transylvania Review

As the old adage goes, appearances can be deceiving. The cover of Creature with the Atom Brain’s sophomore LP seems to aim for spooky ambiance—a pale full moon overlaid by skeletal, clawing tree limbs writhing into the air. On the back, the unmistakable logo of The End Records (label of acts like Danzig, Made out of Babies, Kosmos and Lordi) is stamped into the corner. And the disc is titled Transylvania. Based on those three pieces of evidence, anything besides a goth metal record would be bigger flagrant false advertising than when The Simpsons’ Otto wandered into Stoner’s Pot Palace only to discover that the establishment specialized in selling kitchen pots. But while there is no doubt flecks of goth in this music, and the grim dirges of heavy metal play a significant role as well, Otto would find bleary bliss with the stoner rock haze seeping throughout. So while there is a film of blood collecting on this murk, anyone listening to it will be far too blazed to be terrified. Well, unless they’re the “paranoid” kind.

Fronted by Aldo Struyf (keyboardist for Millionaire), Creature with the Atom Brain takes obvious cues from both Black Sabbath and Kyuss, but considering that the former is stoner rock’s godfather and the latter adapted the model for the modern era, that’s to be expected. Psychedelic flourishes, swampy grunge, and sludge metal all play important roles in bolstering (and diversifying) their sound, but as it is with their muddy little world, being short on dynamism hinders its appeal. Beginning with “I Rise the Moon,” the spell is created by a nocturnal strut, blurred guitar crunch, and glassy-eyed atmospherics. But what is anticipated as a mood elevator or an introduction to a harsh, trembling future is quickly reevaluated as the norm. There’s not a lot of room for rises and falls, abrupt shifts, or meaty hooks in this pallid little world, which is simultaneously its greatest achievement and most depressing drawback. Its viscous vibe invades with almost sinuous authority, but you have a hard time remembering much about it once it’s spent. Hm, kinda like getting baked.

Even if the long haul causes the mind to drift, replays emphasize several noteworthy moments. “Moon” seems to peter out abruptly before a backbeat roundhouse storms out of the speakers in lovably ludicrous fashion…then the song actually does end abruptly. The title track begins with a terrific, bottom-heavy groove and closes with squealing feedback, warped vocals, and spiraling sound effects. “Make Noise” is a heavy, Sabbath-esque dirge, though with the spacey vocals, it plays off as more of the kind of Alice in Chains tribute that Godsmack botches at every opportunity (emphasizing grunge rock’s debt to Tony Iommi and Geezer Butler). “Something Is Wrong”’s otherwise routine composition is broken up by engaging guitar rev hooks. “Lonely Night” features a few brief guitar workouts that blessedly break the robotic drone. “Spinnin’ the Black Hole”’s psych-folk acoustic guitar line lends it a rustic, down home vibe that meshes surprisingly well with the gloomy haze and crunch elsewhere. As for album highlight, the epic “Darker Than a Dungeon,” it starts out with the palpably sinister edge of early Nick Cave, but unfolds into a stunner—the dense guitar fuzz tethered to the martial drumbeat is given a melodic counterpoint by a chiming tone and high, harmonic vocals.

These bright spots mostly have a common denominator—they stand in opposition to the album’s slow-tempo, engulfing fog. Most of the songs’ verse/chorus structures have blurred lines—it’s difficult to discern where they even begin and end. Sequencing alone makes “The Color of Sundown” and “Sound of Confusion” disappointing; the former for failing to build on “Moon”’s promising intro, and the latter, despite a vocal performance that frequently recollects Queens of the Stone Age’s “Mosquito Song,” has the unenviable task of following “Dungeon.” Then there’s “The Lonesome Whistle”—regardless of an appealing Eastern flavor and tribal drums, the number drags before its six-plus minutes are spent. Compounding that problem is that it’s followed by closer “Is That Lady Sniff?” which, despite its relatively low key acoustic reverb and a vocal hook reminiscent of Jerry Cantrell’s “Cut You In,” fails to give Transylvania the big finish that might have made a surfeit of muffled rockers earlier worthwhile. But as you can see by all the caveats listed, even the weakest tracks have at least something worthwhile in them—below par but not without value.

Struyf’s vocals are as bleary as the fuzzy tones around him—so evenly mixed as to render many songs, especially “Spinnin’ the Black Hole” and “The Color of Sundown,” unintelligible—so it helps that Koen Kohlbacher and Mark Lanegan make guest appearances. Lanegan, of course, fits this niche quite well, and not just because of his time spent with grunge rockers Screaming Trees and the dense sprawl of the Mark Lanegan Band. Making several vocal contributions over the years for QOTSA, Lanegan’s dusky warble offered counterpoint to their hookier rockers while adding haunting tones to their psychedelia. He shows up on “Lonely Night,” and while it lumbers at a similar speed to the rest, the riffs being repeated at least jockey up and down the octave. The way his voice cuts through the distortion is ensnaring, lending sensation to the mechanics of reverberation. As for the lyrics throughout, what could be understood is little more than the usual batch of desert rock vague phrases, but lyrics were always secondary (or even tertiary) in this sort of music.

Knowing what we know about Millionaire and producer Chris Goss’ work with Masters of Reality, Queens of the Stone Age, Kyuss, et al, I wouldn’t fault you for expecting gleefully crushing hard rock on the rampage, but you’d be wrong same as I was. Creature with the Atom Brain’s style is toned back, evenly mixed, and so sludgy and hazy that listening to it not only gives you a contact high, but makes you feel like that last hit caused you to shrink down Lewis Carroll-style and you crawled into your obelisk-shaped bong to listen to this thing. Though it may have flown in the face of the intention, a more dynamic sound would have been beneficial. Sure, they got the groove concept down pat, but without the variance between loud and soft, sludgy and crisp, speedy and sluggish, cloudy and aggressive, it begins to bleed into languor during several stretches. Dark, psychedelic and groovy, it’s a more than respectable effort, but it probably won’t replace your Kyuss collection anytime soon.

"Transylvania" is on sale February 2, 2010 from The End.

Matt Medlock


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