Atoms and Void is perhaps a logical progression, a destination that was meant to be for its players, Arlie Carstens and Eric Fisher, previously of Seattle prog-emo juggernaut Juno. (Well, juggernaut in my mind anyway – I don’t actually know for sure without any knowledge of their fanbase. I just know that using the adjectives “titanic” or “monolithic” when describing their sound is entirely justified.) I’ll get to that in a moment. First, it should be noted that the project’s debut And Nothing Else took a hell of a time to make. Carstens and Fisher recorded wherever and however they could, but fate intervened and postponed their debut. From their website: “Along the way they’ve had a laptop stolen in Toronto and crashed a hard drive in Seattle, circumstances which have caused the duo to pause for years at a stretch while figuring out how best to re-record the album. Twice.”
Ugh. But it’s here, finally, and as soon as it hit my inbox (thanks Arctic Rodeo!), I knew it had to be next in the queue. Because, as fate would have it – or coincidence, or maybe it’s just me shoehorning the events into my own narrative – I reviewed Juno’s A Future Lived in Past Tense in a kind of wayback machine format, recalling an album that spent heavy rotation on my formative playlist. Carstens noticed the review about two years after it was posted, and we had a brief conversation in the comments. (During this time I reread the review and felt super sheepish about spending so much – read “any” – time on the only song on the album I didn’t necessarily like. So here’s my chance at full rectification: Future is an amazing album. Still. Period.) In the conversation, Carstens mentioned his continuing work in Atoms and Void, and in doing so introduced me to the project.
At first blush – and indeed, at most blushes – And Nothing Else owes very little to Juno in sound and texture. It does, however, owe quite a lot to Talk Talk, whose Laughing Stock and Spirit of Eden Carstens internalized in the early 1990s, and which have been permeating his post-Juno work in greater and greater measure. Gone is the three-guitar threat, a facsimile of which peers out of retirement only really in “Waves of Blood,” a near-instrumental that bursts briefly, then turns its coat up against the cold and hunches out the door. That instrumentation is replaced by ruminative piano-led ballads and studio-as-instrument structural experimentation, which are haunted by Carstens’s baritone when he feels like lending his voice at all (which is only little more than half the time).
I guess that middle age – and hell, I count myself among those at its doorstep – dulls the intensity of youth, and Carstens and Fisher embrace that evolutionary trait and dig the hole deeper. The two collaborators, once emotionally raw and angry in Juno and during its immediate aftermath, are now just emotionally raw. The result – the newfound sonic palette, the experimental touches, the inclination to let the music rather than words do the communicating – is a harrowing and heartbreaking document, an ode to a darker place, and a realization of and reaction to knowing that you don’t know anything, and most people around you know even less. Take the band’s name and album all at once: Atoms and Void And Nothing Else – that’s it. There is nothing else – only the stuff that we and all things around us are made of and the absence of that stuff. There’s no middle ground. Forget every grand assumption you’ve ever had and meditate on the meaning of this, on the meaninglessness of it all.
That a little dark for you, a little depressing? Well, you’ve missed the point then – once you get to that place, the search for meaning within that reality truly begins. And that’s where And Nothing Else succeeds – within the questions it raises and the self-examination it imposes, it stirs a dormant energy to revitalize, to renew life. Think of it as a self-help method that isn’t total bullshit – it doesn’t want to be, and in fact retreats from that idea, but that’s where it took me, and hopefully you’ll get there too.
What I appreciate most about And Nothing Else is that it’s not a record that immediately pummels you with heavy-handedness, or forces you into a prescribed corner. It unfolds gracefully, each song a deliberate point along its path. “The Architect and the Atomizer” is a false start, a reminder that the DNA of Juno is still present, but its guitars are a tease, and Carstens doesn’t make his presence felt until the song is already more than half over. It’s followed by “Lay Down Your Weapons,” a beautiful and frayed-nerve white flag of a track led by piano and lonely guitar, and just when it threatens to tick up a notch in intensity, the song ends. This is the true path of the album – it’s beaten, it’s broken, it’s massively affecting. It also leaves the door wide open for the muted, pastoral, and remarkable instrumental experiments like “Feathers from a Bird.”
These songs, with only minimal elements accompanying Carstens’s hushed voice (such as on tracks like “The Conductor” and “For Sharon, With Love,” the most minimal folk song ever) don’t leave much room to hide behind, so every sentiment is exposed. Even when songs open up a little, when they gain instrumentation and collaboration, such as on “Golden Shivers” and “Destroyed, The Sword of Saint Michael,” they still face intensely inward. It’s actually kind of exhausting, too, by the end of it, but after a breather I’m ready to tackle it again. Still, I’m incredibly grateful when closing track “This Departing Landscape” allows the guitar and drums a moment of mid-tempo reprieve as the album’s denouement, offering the refreshing philosophical idea that one can simply leave parts of oneself and one’s life behind for an uninhibited and bright future. I think the term here is, “hopeful.” Go figure.
RIYL: Juno, Talk Talk