Most all of us reach to music when we’re feeling something. We associate certain emotions with specific sounds or genres; we even curate full playlists (or mixtapes, if analogue is your medium) built wholly around an emotion or experience. These genre-emotion connections are well-established, nearly universal even: upbeat pop when we’re happy, ballads when we’re sad, and heavy metal when we’re pissed as all hell. There are of course exceptions, but look at any “angry music” playlist on Spotify, and you’re likely to find more metal tracks than anything else.
Well this review is about one of the exceptions. Because Atna, the new EP by atmospheric metal act Sadness, is one of the most melancholy metal records I’ve ever heard.
While only three tracks long, Atna spans nearly 30 minutes, just below the time threshold for a full-length record. Furthermore, each track is very different from its bedfellows in sound, dynamics and emotional aura, making for a strong and engaging listening experience.
The opening track “Daydreaming” immediately sets the tone for the record. Grainy hissing guitar notes pop under the dolorous opening melody, like sonic thoughts drifting into consciousness. The track builds with looming monolith low notes, while the thumping percussion feels distant, like a parade passing below, heard through an open window. Yet soon that parade barges into the room, bringing crashing cymbals, a snappy snare, and grinding distorted chords right to the forefront.
“Daydreaming” begins and ends with gentility, but the middle section is immersive, like an aimless train of thought bursting suddenly into a bad memory. The vocals seep into the song like a carbon monoxide leak, echoing behind the strings, until finally the track comes to rest again in a tranquil—yet no longer so pure—dreamlike atmosphere.
Whereas “Daydreaming” fully captures the experience of the song’s title, the middle track on Atna takes an opposite approach. “How Bright You Shine” pastes a beautiful sentiment over the sonic equivalent of a sudden, unexpected loss. Atmospheric guitar work drifts in negative space, like it’s barely even there, a ghost of sound. The track then explodes into heavy guitars, hectic drumming, and reverberating melodics. This wall of monstrous sound, capped by heady emotional screaming, blooms and billows before finally crashing into a wash of feedback and ambient noises.
The most remarkable part of “How Bright You Shine” is the focal point it chooses to accent—a recording of someone openly weeping. This unmistakable sound is the first thing we hear, and Sadness builds the rest of the track around it. Indeed, as the instrumentation builds to its breaking point, this wailing turns into the vocal riding above the guitars and drums. The screams become part of the song, taking on an almost melodic quality, before finally returning to the lonesome wretching from the intro. Best, or perhaps worst, of all, this is no play crying—this is the sound of true despair, of being overcome with grief. It is unmitigated pain pressed to tape, and every single time I hear it, I am truly brought to tears.
The final song on Atna, “Hope You Never Forget,” takes a step back from the blatant anguish of its predecessor, settling on a more melancholic timbre. Sadness sets this song apart further by pulling away from the typical metal sound, instead focusing on ambience and melodics. A mourning acoustic guitar drives much of the song, underneath a beautiful vocal line that becomes the tune’s recurrent theme. The track builds very gradually, as Sadness allows each element introduced to breathe and evolve on its own. By the end of its 11-minute length, “Hope You Never Forget” swells with washes of distant guitar and reverb-laden drums, until the song peters out into a final, spacious roar of air, like a distant wind blowing away the remnants of a dream.
True to their band name, Sadness captures in Atna the very essence of depression. Vivid soundscaping, lush yet crushing guitar tones, and vocals dripping with anguish all impart a very powerful, very human experience in sonic form. This record does not shy away from the bleak and painful, but instead embraces it, diving with abandon into the depths of that despair to see what lies at the bottom. It is a touchstone for those who are going through a similar experience, a safe and intimate place to feel, to grieve, and to heal. Atna breaks the stereotypical view of metal music as aggro, as macho—and if you’ve ever felt unable to relate to the genre because of this stereotype, start here, and see what new doors it opens for you.
My Top Track: “How Bright You Shine”