The Porcelain Throne: Atrox
In which Norwegian freaks Atrox are granted the honor of popping a squat upon the highest, cleanest, pearly-whitest toilet in the land, so that they might release the terrible pressure in their bowels. May they find gastro-intestinal peace and glory in the halls of Porcelain Thronery for all time!
There are several reasons the name Atrox (at rocks) might be unfamiliar to you:
- You are a young whippersnapper and the band went defunct loooooong before you put on your big boy metal pants.
- The band was relatively obscure in their day, vying for the limelight against juggernauts of weird metal such as Arcturus, Solefald and Dødheimsgard.
- You do not know what is cool–never have, never will.
Whatever the case, I now present you with the chance to make things right with your gods. Here at the office of the Porcelain Throne, we like to take the overlooked gems of our collections and elevate them to greater public awareness through praise, praise and…uh…further praise. Why does Atrox deserve to be thrice praised? For starters, in the sixteen years that have passed since I first heard them, I have not heard another band even attempt to reproduce their utterly singular sound. As with all of the heavyweights of avant-garde metal, the success of that sound hinged upon pure alchemy: an amalgam of science and mysticism which, when harnessed by true adepts, yielded something precious, new and unspeakably alluring. But forget all of that, because the only thing that really matters is that to this day I can still throw on an Atrox album at any time and fall into paroxysms of weird metal bliss.
Mesmerised (1997) & Contentum (2000)
Fun Fact: Atrox formed way back in 1988 under the name Suffocation. We can only assume that they changed their name after receiving a snotty Cease & Desist letter from the legal team of some other band with that name. There isn’t much information about Atrox’s first decade of existence, in part because they released nothing but also maybe because there was no extreme metal blogosphere to speak of. It’s no coincidence that the band finally produced a full-length album only after vocalist/keyboardist Monika Edvardsen joined. Until then they had reportedly been mucking around with a sort of Peaceville-ian death metal. But Monika’s appearance heralds a dramatic shift toward the atmospheric, the melancholy and the strange. Why? Because her voice is no joke. (Much more on her later). Be that as it may, Mesmerised is not a great album. Not even a particularly good one. None of the band members have hit their stride; as a whole they sound unsure and derivative, almost furtive when you consider the virtuosic heights to which they will later ascend. Mesmerised is a young album, hobbled by overly simplistic songwriting, thin production and an already stale reliance upon the standard “beauty & the beast” vocal approach, in which the male vocalist growls and the female one croons winsomely. Think of a doomier version of early Lacuna Coil or a less baroque Theater of Tragedy and you’re in the ballpark. On Mesmerised, Atrox is too afraid to step out of the shadow of their contemporaries, and probably also under an immense amount of pressure from their label, Seasons of Mist, to stay cowering in that shadow, churning out paint-by-numbers gothic doom ditties. (Personally, I blame the album’s prevailing mediocrity on superfluous death-growler Geir Tore Johansen and surrogate drum machine Lars Halvard Søndrol.)
On sophomore album Contentum, Atrox is a band reborn. The album artwork–rendered by Edvardsen, whose paintings would also adorn the next two albums–says it all. Having shed the dead weight of Johansen and Søndrol and promoted Edvardsen to lead vocalist, Atrox present us with a dynamic and sprawling opus of self-labeled “schizo-metal” which is light-years beyond Mesmerised in every imaginable way. The production is rich and crisp, gifting every instrument with space to shine. And shine they do, from top to bottom. New drummer Tor-Arne Helgesen is the perfect madman to kick down the doors to new vistas of progressive grandeur. Fueled by his stylistic fusion of metal, rock and funk, guitarists Rune Sørgard and Eivind Fjoseide construct the kind of dizzying melodic and harmonic latticeworks usually reserved for Progressive Metal (Capitol P). And yet they are all stylistically beholden to nothing but their own manic whims; they can crush like Cynic or trip-out like Pink Floyd, and shift between modes and moods at the drop of a dime. All of that being said, the tag “schizo-metal” doesn’t quite apply until you take in the full breadth and intensity of Monika Edvardsen’s vocal performance. Not to be overshadowed by her bandmates, she belts out operatic notes and leans back into jazzy solos in consecutive breaths. Sometimes she seems to feel like doing both at once, but decides to do neither, gibbering instead like an old woman in a condemned house full of dead cats. Many have called her performance on Contentum “annoying”–and yes, at its most unhinged, it is just that. But any annoyance is easily obliterated by moments of genius, such as the angelic chorus of “Serenity” or the mournful ululations of “What Crawls Underneath”.
Terrestrials is one of the greatest metal albums ever recorded. Ask anyone. They will not know what you are talking about. Ask me, and I will confirm that it is indeed one of the greatest metal albums ever recorded. Compared to Mesmerised, Contentum was a revelation. Compared to Contentum, Terrestrials is a revelation about how that previous revelation was not really so much a revelation per se as a big step in the right direction. Terrestrials is the true revelation, and also the crown jewel of the Atrox discography. Autumnal, playful and insanely sure of itself, it scratches every weird itch you’ve ever pulled a muscle trying to reach. And does so without the overboard annoyances inflicted by the previous album’s weakest moments. Contentum was a teenager smearing it’s face with black lipstick and mascara and screaming at its parents; Terrestrials has moved out of the basement, leased a studio apartment downtown and gotten a fucking job. It is kind of a spooky album, and it is all Edvardsen’s fault. Her synth textures borrow more from horror soundtracks than from the symphonic grandeur of which her peers are so fond. She also spends a lot of time trying out creepy new possessed-doll voices. You cannot just sit back and listen to her bending to the will of her madness; you are sucked into her madness until you wear it like a skin. Her lyrics spit tales of ghosts, rotting castles, living dolls, demented solitude and sundry phantasmagoria. When the guitars are not consumed with riffing your brain out, they fall in lock step with Edvardsen’s eerie moods, and the result is evocative of some wicked cabaret. In this way it feels like Terrestrials is indebted to Arcturus; but whereas La Masquerade Infernale sounded like a satanic carnival at full tilt, Terrestrials brings to mind the female wing of a psychiatric institution, where madwomen tiptoe around tittering and masturbating and pulling out their hair. In short, it is a much more interior experience.
Following swiftly on the heels of its predecessor, Orgasm is a step in a decidedly conservative direction. Which is to say that the flighty excesses of Contentum and Terrestrials have been pared back, leaving a lot more straight-up METAL on the plate: stutter-start riffs, polyrhythmic grooves, and enough crunch to thwart the soggifying powers of even the toughest bowl of milk. While Edvardsen’s vocals still shine, the riffage seeks to usurp her. For some, this may come as good news. For me, at the time, it was a bit of a tough pill to swallow. I missed the pervasive, paranoid atmosphere. The songs were still extravagant and memorable, but they were a whole lot more riffy than I liked my metal back then. Eivind and Rune had taken the helm, and it was clear from Edvardsen’s relatively diminished contributions that the takeover may have been slightly less than diplomatic. Regardless, Orgasm is a fantastic album, boasting two of my all time favorite Atrox tunes in the bizarrely touching “Heartquake” and the orgasmically (snarf snarf snarf) crescendoing “Secondhand Traumas”. And hey, let’s talk about the bass for a minute, yeah? Atrox’s previous session bassists always brought the goods, but for Orgasm the band employed Edvardsen’s hubby, “Pete”, and holy fuck did he kick things up several notches. His technique is nimble, his tone divine, and as often as not you’ll hear him plucking out leads in counterpoint to the guitars on either side of him. If anyone, dear old “Pete” is the star of Orgasm; without his contributions, some of the songs could easily have edged toward mediocrity.
Orgasm was not unexpectedly to prove Edvardsen’s final album with Atrox. She left on friendly terms, citing a decreasing interest in metal which chafed her bandmates’ increasing interest in it. They went on to release another album in 2008, but I don’t want to talk about it. Except to point out that the band made the embarrassing decision to carry on as Atrox with a male vocalist. And since no male vocalist–or female, for that matter–would be capable of reproducing Edvardsen’s work, they even went on touring the old songs with new lyrics. Which was an awful idea. Like, one of the stupidest ideas I’ve ever heard. According to the official Atrox website, despite an eight-year hiatus the band is still active and has a new album on the way. Kudos to them; for me, Atrox ended the day Monika Edvardsen walked out the door. I have no idea what she’s up to these days. For a while she was doing THIS.
For the uninitiated, The Porcelain Throne is a column for guest submissions, specifically about a band you enjoy that doesn’t get much attention, but you think their discography deserves a spotlight. Download The Official Porcelain Throne Guidelines and send submissions to firstname.lastname@example.org.