The same lineup that brought forth Aussie trio Arrowhead’s self-titled demo in 2009 returns for the self-released full-length Atomsmasher, a 10-track collection of straightforward fuzz jams that keeps holy a sort of stoner rock traditionalism. Nods to mid-period Fu Manchu abound both in sonics and the laid back atmosphere that pervades despite the tonal heaviness, the vocals of guitarist Brett Pearl having more in common here with Scott Hill’s delivery than there seemed to be on the introductory offering. Atomsmasher stays to verse/chorus delivery and presents itself as a collection of songs – that is, no discernible narrative thread running through or tracks bleeding directly into each other – typified by driving riffs, the warm, complementary bass work of Dave Lopez and strong choruses anchored by Matt Cramp’s groove-heavy drumming. It’s a record that establishes its ideas quickly but grows in appeal on subsequent listens, and whereas some of these songs seem at first to be acting as anchors for the tracks surrounding – take opener “Cobra DeVille,” “Blood from a Stone,” “Eagle Death Machine” and closer “Mayflower” as examples of the songwriting at its strongest – further investigation shows “Horse Called Doom,” “Stampede,” and “Holdfast” standing up in terms of quality, even if they’re not as immediate in doing so.
Looking at how Atomsmasher is structured, the aforementioned highlights come spaced apart with two songs between each (the exception being “Mayflower,” which ends the album), and whether that’s on purpose on the part of Arrowhead or just how the tracklisting felt right when they started to put it together, it shows an intriguing drive toward symmetry that the songs mirror in their own individual constructions. Make no mistake: Arrowhead have made a rock record, but it’s never that simple, and there are nuances of tone and phrasing on Atomsmasher, musically and vocally, that remind of just that point. Not that they’d tell you that. Or at least not that they’d tell you that while making the memorable hook of “Cobra DeVille” sound like something that just happened, anyway. Cramp fills out the drum lines while start-stop riffing lays a bed for leads for Pearl in the bridge, and then they unleash one of Atomsmasher’s best choruses in a fashion that’s pure The Action is Go. I’m not about to begrudge Arrowhead digging on some Fu Manchu, and they throw in some Kyuss/Slo Burn-type desert rocking for “Cobra DeVille” – which takes its title from the original name of the band – and the following title-track, which is a little more insistent in its drumming and freewheeling in transitional guitar leads from Pearl, despite keeping the Hill-esque vocal.
If it’s possible, “Horse Called Doom” is even more fuzzed out, the rhythm reminding some of the tension Dozer created on their first album, but solidly working in its own sphere to set up “Blood from a Stone” as the second of Atomsmasher’s four trail-marker choruses. Pearl takes an opportunity to recount a workingman’s blues lyrically while the guitars trip out a little more on effects during the verse, leaving Lopez and Cramp to keep the groove going, which of course they do with no trouble whatsoever. It’s the first of several tracks to top five minutes, but they put that time to good use with riffs and a decently-balanced instrumental break in which lead guitar permeates but doesn’t dominate any more than it should, defying expectation just a bit in extending another couple measures before kicking back into the chorus one last time. Just when you think they might solo themselves into oblivion, they pull it back, ending firm on two quickly-faded hits following the last chorus, setting up “Diamonds to Dust” as the end of the first side.
And though it is that – or it could be; since they don’t really offer any dramatic or radical changes in approach on the album’s second half, it works just as well with a CD’s linear flow – and though its inflected with Cramp’s crashes and a more winding riff, the song is still a comedown after “Blood from a Stone,” despite having possibly the strongest bassline on Atomsmasher in the runs that Lopez works into the chorus. “Stampede” is a Kyuss-style energy burst, and at two and a half-minutes doesn’t so much feel structurally different from a lot of what Arrowhead are doing, just played out faster. I wouldn’t advocate their doing it all the time, but the quicker pace suits “Stampede,” and any road that leads more directly to “Eagle Death Machine” is a road I want to be on. The three-piece shifts the structure some, saving the hook to follow a couple runs through the verse, and then they just ride it out for the second three of the song’s total six minutes – the line “I want to fly like an eagle death machine” rides Atomsmasher’s most potent groove, and however much you might sit back and go, “Oh this sounds like this blah blah blah” (or however much I might do it), if you don’t come out of “Eagle Death Machine” knowing Arrowhead have their hearts in the right place, you don’t get it and you’re not going to get it. You might as well pack it in from here and save yourself the frustration later.
They fuzz the song to its finish led by Pearl’s crunching riff, and step back into more open semi-psych on “Liquified,” which is still firmly stoner, but more subdued vocally and effected in the guitar line. They obviously know their audience might need a breath after “Eagle Death Machine” and they seem happy to provide it, but “Liquified” is also the only other song on Atomsmasher to hit the six-minute mark, and it’s certainly not without substance of its own to go along with the role it plays next to “Eagle Death Machine.” Lopez adds more low-end righteousness, and just because it sounds ethereal in comparison to some of what’s surrounding doesn’t mean Arrowhead have lost their songwriting sensibility. They maintain it both for the duration of “Liquified” and “Holdfast,” which follows and, following an intro that could’ve been taken from the prior track and works very well next to it, revives the more straightforward approach that typifies the rest of the album. It’s not their best hook, but neither does it offend, and Lopez again shines on bass, proving himself an asset once more as he’s done the whole time, underscoring a long solo from Pearl with class and without taking away from the impressive guitar work more than he should.
Wah stands out in the last chorus, but it’s been peppered throughout, and the already-noted closer, “Mayflower,” comes on sounding rawer and more overdriven than some of Atomsmasher’s smoother moments. It’s the only song here that also appeared on the self-titled, and while I don’t know if it was recorded in a different session than the rest of the full-length, it has a darker, more feedback-soaked feel and Pearl takes a slightly different vocal approach, blowing out the verse and going up a register for the chorus – echoing as one might expect Asteroid to – before a chugging bridge leads to the solo. It’s not so outlandish in the last spot on the record, but if it was in the middle, it probably would stand out more than it should. A ring-out ends the album and in a quick 47 minutes, Arrowhead have made it clear with their first long player that they know the stoner rock from which they’ve derived their sound and that they’re focused more on riffing out than on reinventing the wheel. Their lack of pretense about it is admirable. Doubtless as they press on – particularly if they can keep this lineup, the chemistry of which is already more palpable here than it was on the demo – they’ll continue to develop more of a personality of their own, but for fuzz heads the world over and especially those in the Aussie scene, Atomsmasher shows they’re already well worth a look.
Tags: Arrowhead, Australia, Unsigned bands