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.