Evoken: Atra Mors

The suffering that Evoken has put to dispiriting use over its two-decade existence gnaws at the fibers of self-doubt long after the band's songs have finished.


Atra Mors

Label: Profound Lore
US Release Date: 2012-07-31
UK Release Date: 2012-08-06
“When you die it's the same as if everybody else did too.”

-- Cormac McCarthy, The Road

Heavy metal is a genre spilling over with gripping fantastical escapades, but the most resonant metal narrates tales that aren’t imaginary at all. Instead, it speaks directly of the painful emotional experiences we all share; metal has never shied away from summoning up grief-stricken scenes or spectrums of sorrow. Bands such as Mournful Congregation, Winter, and Finnish funeral doom pioneers Thergothon and Skepticism have demoralized the hardiest souls, but few bands have conveyed loss with such gut-wrenching tenor as Evoken.

Atra Mors is Evoken's first full-length album in five years, and the band's most lugubrious yet. The doom quintet, from Lyndhurst, New Jersey, has released four previous albums, all near-perfect requiems of monumental shadow, long recognized by fans and metal critics alike as all-conquering kingdoms of woe. Atra Mors is another leviathan of anguish, an unrelenting mélange of misery, comprising eight soul-crushing edifices of calamitous audio and emotional weight. Ridden with reverb and saturnine melodies, Atra Mors runs more than an hour in length and offers evocative and grueling black bile balladry made for solitary listening and deep rumination.

Evoken clearly recognize that attempts to barter with loss and play speculative ‘if only … ’ games do nothing to ease its inevitable magnitude. Accordingly, the band constructs towering treatises to the inescapable enormity of grief. Viscoelastic and portentous riffs are stretched out and cut with death metal bursts, and frontman John Paradiso's guttural rasps communicate the butchery of the heart (and the futility of arguing with an absent god).

Nothing is going to halt the inexorable encumbrance of sorrow. Vince Verkay’s powerful percussion batters the traumatized consciousness, while David Wagner's bass provides peals of thunder to keep you fearful of what looms ahead. Paradiso and Chris Molinari's riffs reflect the purity of the oncoming pain. Layers of mournfulness are drawn from the frets, as unfolding compositions explore caverns of blackness and wander tundra leveled by the overwhelming ravages and privations of loss.

Atra Mors is daunting and utterly woebegone, with diameters of grief that eclipse the sun. The production is Evoken's best yet – thicker and denser, yet also more desolate. "Atra Mors" and "Descent Into Frantic Dream" open with reverie-like ambles before being crushed by the hammer of hopelessness. Throughout, sweeping panoramas are draped in morbidity as riffs create a ruinous atmosphere and crestfallen gravities make the album’s colossal mass even more concentrated.

However, like any heartbreak, Atra Mors also ebbs and flows as unexpected emotional tides wash ashore, offering tantalizing glimpses beyond the clouds of sadness. Moments of beauty are borne along by Don Zaros' keyboards. Drawing from a kosmiche current more reminiscent of the orchestral synth of Klaus Schulze than anything garishly symphonic, Zaros' work provides the romanticism, adding a fine sense of Gothic drama to proceedings. Evoken further emphasize the seductiveness of its depressive suites with strings and susurrus effects, such as those binding the crawling dirge of "Grim Eloquence". "Into Aphotic Devastation" opens with haunting cello and "The Unechoing Dread" unspools an unsettling thread with spoken word vocals and a frosty threnodic drone.

Two plaintive instrumental tracks offer glimpses of hope mixed with distress. The piano-led "A Tenebrous Vision" and the steel-string strum and cello of "Requies Aeterna" are respites betwixt the storm clouds (Evoken makes sure to scatter ambient passages, however brief, throughout its tempests). "An Extrinsic Divide" is a grand illustration of the elegance of despair. A blackened, encircling churn, the song is dominant and cruel, yet it also reveals there is nothing monochromatic about Evoken’s songwriting. Graduations, subtleties and melodic swells rise throughout the song, as they do on Atra Mors as a whole. Those surges of luminosity shine light on the tensile solidity of it all, reflecting the totality of loss, but they also express the exquisiteness of heartache.

The suffering that Evoken has put to dispiriting use over its two-decade existence gnaws at the fibers of self-doubt long after the band's songs have finished. The creeping thought that life is nothing more than a lurch from lament to lament seems entirely plausible as you listen to the band’s red-raw lachrymosity, and watch it bleed indelible trails of despair. Evoken conjures disillusionment like no other, and Atra Mors represents the pinnacle of the band's career thus far.

Misery doesn't follow a straight path, and nor does Atra Mors. It heaves itself over obstacles, gives in to desperation, weeps at the emergence of light and both curses at and revels in darkness. It is a torrent of tenebrous metal, a dolorous maelstrom, and it perfectly captures the many dimensions of loss.


In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.

8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

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