4 out of 5
Produced by: Atmosphere
Slug – Atmosphere’s MC – has a few different modes he operates in, and given that he’s at his best when he’s on his front foot doing backpack-y, observational hip-hop, with Ant providing an upbeat, raw sound, it’s clearer to me how he became such a draw in the indie rap scene in those early years. I say this because as the years went on, it got more polished and more complex, the music leaning towards dense, soulful layers, and Slug trying to work in more mature versions of his navel-gazing, all of this potentially peaking with Seven’s Travels, then batting around variations on that style in the many albums thereafter. (This being my at-a-glance, surely-objectively-incorrect snap judgement of Atmos’ catalogue.)
I appreciate but can’t say I actively enjoy latter-day Atmosphere, as it’s kind of the Blink 182 of the genre: the sound has evolved, and sometimes Slug raps about growing old, but it’s still a lot of immature, sing-song rhymes about sex and weed, and that was a lot more fun when the rapper was a younger man, and Ant was mixing his samples up with rock and pop cuts as well. (Not that the duo isn’t capable of surprising me here and there.)
Anyhow, it’s with a pleasing sense of refreshment that 2010s ‘To All My Friends, Blood Makes The Blade Holy’ “double EP” arrived, a semi-long fomenting collection of tracks that, as the title suggests, was intended as two smaller releases, then bundled together as one. And it’s all of that stuff that made the duo feel so notable back in the day, running out of the gate with fun, bouncy rhymes or more aggressive spits, mapped to unbelievably catchy melodies. Narrowing down the scope to EPs seems to have focused Slug; the rapper doesn’t come across as pressed to dress up his rhymes beyond their base obsessions or battle spits, and when he reflects on street life, it’s well bound to his observational style – he’s not reaching for anything too profound, which is a better, more relatable fit. The same praise goes to Ant, who shows more experimentation here than we’d get, collectively, across several albums; while always a talented MC at mixing in a lot of nuance, it’s almost too slick sometimes to notice, and matching that skill with more organic instrumentation (many guitars licks, funky bass) is a lot of fun.
The two halves of the disc also fit together really well, with the first part more upbeat and the latter a bit darker; the only real sense that these were standalones is that there’s a slight bit of repetition in how each individual section is structured, with a catchy opener, some more standard tracks leading to something really poppy, and then a more dramatic closer. A couple beats are maybe close to being recycled between the two EPs, but because each individual song is almost a single – very memorable – that’s not such a bad thing.
Given the breadth of Atmosphere’s discography, and the frequency of their releases, right from the start, it really is impressive how many great tracks they’ve delivered over the years, with even albums I don’t frequent too often definitely having standouts. But To All My Friends has proven to be that special rarity: a set of songs that’s banging from end-to-end. Maybe they “cheated” by crafting such an album from two EPs, but hey, whatever works.