It's good to see that not EVERY new rock band supported by major labels has to be a Blink 182 clone, Limp Bizkit rip-off or Linkin Park imitator. Step forward Athenaeum, a band with few pretensions, not much marketing potential, but plenty of great tunes.
The band first surfaced in 1998 with the quite brilliant debut Radiance which duly shone (but never set the charts alight) in all its lush pop-rock glory, courtesy of the majestic hand of producer Gavin Mackillop. In some ways then, it's surprising to see them get another shot from Atlantic, but their patience could well be rewarded if one of the best rock records of 2001 lives up to its potential.
This time around, the band have enlisted the help of producers Peter Collins and Philip Steir and the result is a much tougher sounding album that builds on the Toad the Wet Sprocket-style melodies of Radiance, and adds a real depth to both Athenaeum's sound and songwriting. Certainly, this is evident on the mid-paced strains of "Sweeter Love" or the closing bluesy track "If Baby's Gone", and on first listen, the songs are a lot tougher to get into.
Perseverance is rewarded however, and chief songwriter Mark Kano's mastery of songs that are both abstract and pure pop soon becomes apparent. Opener "Suddenly" builds into a hectic climax from an atmospheric acoustic intro and has a stealthy hook that stays embedded into the memory for days.
Likewise first single "Comfort", which along with the bouncy "Mistake", is probably the closest the band get to the sound of "What I Didn't Know" from the first record. The direction the band has taken since then becomes evident on the spiky "Damage", making more use of effects and instrumentation than on previous material, but still boasting those killer harmonies and choruses of the bands' earlier work.
It really is a satisfying progression and as such, Athenaeum is a much more diverse album. New recruit Mike Garrigan (formerly of fellow North Carolina rockers Collapsis) makes his impression by co-writing "Plurabelle" and with a slight Pearl Jam influence the song (about the lead female character in Finnegan's Wake) marks the band's evolution still further.
However, the track that cements the band's musical development is the epic "Frozen in Time", a six-minute rocker that twists and turns through glorious acoustic phrased verses and a rockier chorus together with some intelligent lyrics.
Easily one of the most accomplished rock releases this year, Athenaeum will captivate fans of this genre and leave fans of music with depth, sincerity and meaning glad that the musical climate of 2001 holds room for band's like these. Their bio makes reference to the fact that Athenaeum's music is both cerebrally sophisticated and mutually accessible, and while that's certainly true, in simple terms it means these guys are definitely not Alien Ant Farm. For that, we can only give thanks.