5 out of 5
Produced by: Ant
As a posterband for backpack, indie emo hip-hop, and with Slug being a main force behind Rhymesayers, it’s interesting that Atmosphere’s most nuanced, balanced, and incisive album… is their sole major release.
To my ears, there’s before and after Seven’s Travels: before: the humble, crass poet, stuck in small narratives of life and failed romance, spinning some really inventive phrases with the recognizable for a unique brew of relatable insight, Ant’s beats obsessively soulful. After: a push towards relative lightness, and then an album-by-album focus on adulthood and post-fame as the music industry and indie scenes evolved, Ant now bringing in all sorts of experimental wizardry to spice up a split between more aggressive and soulful beats. Both of these approaches have their pluses, but also limitations, with a childishness / precociousness in the former, and a bit of been-there-done-that sameness to the latter, despite the music getting more varied. But right between growing up and getting old, there’s Travels: when Slug’s slice-of-life tales felt as reflective as observational, the group right on the crux of fame and disgust with the same; battle / sillier tracks feel less like strung together invectives and more like releases – the intensity of the tales merits a break right in the middle where Brother Ali can join in for Cats Vans Bags and the track just slays; Ant is a half-step away from the punky angle of then-forthcoming You Can’t Imagine How Much Fun We’re Having, which injects deeply rhythmic grooves with an edge – no single track sounding like another, and every one features a memorable, stuck-in-yer-head hook that helps to solidify the impact of Slug’s patient and evocative thoughts and stories.
70 minutes is a long disc – common for the group, and something that often makes even great Atmosphere albums drag, as you get to the latter half and elements repeat. But here, the sequencing between sobering, bouncy, dark, and weird is perfected – we loop through a couple long cycles of these, broken up by the aforementioned Cats Vans Bags, and because no exact melody / tone is reused, it feels more like a purposeful journey than just too much material. Capping this off with an unbelievable joyful tribute to Minnesota – Say Shh – is the bow on the gift; wrapping the package with a step back to appreciate what’s been delivered.
While major label ultimately meant a punk imprint – Epitaph – a deft little dodge to the side of the mainstream, I love that Atmosphere made their most “pure” statement at their most exposed point, and that, unlike a lot of their music, it’s not just a capsule of a time and place – it hits hard and heavy with words and music any time you put it on.