Record of the Month
From debut ‘Overcast!’ to last year’s ‘To All My Friends, Blood Makes The Blade Holy (The Atmosphere EPs)’, Slug and Ant of Atmosphere have gleefully spent the last fifteen years or so using the rulebook as deluxe toilet paper; fashioning idiosyncratic musical constructs that defy traditional rap convention. With ‘The Family Sign’, we get to see the group – now officially four men strong with the addition of guitarist Nate Collis and keys man Erick Anderson – continue its evolution from producer-emcee rap startup, to fully-fledged band crafting dynamic, expansive songs.
The group’s previous long player, ‘When Life Gives You Lemons, You Paint That Shit Gold’, marked a departure from Atmosphere’s previous work; Producer Ant eschewed his trademark soulful samples in favour of live instrumentation, and Slug’s lyrical work concerned non-personal fictional narratives – something of a coup considering the rapper’s reputation for writing about previous experiences. ‘The Family Sign’ is clearly an extension of the 2008 record, but where ‘Lemons’ reveled in its brash synthesizers, ‘The Family Sign’ – the group’s seventh official studio album – is altogether a more organic proposition.
An album inspired by friends, family and the emotional highs and lows that invariably come with those relationships, this new record has plenty of trademark Atmosphere sensibility for fans to wrap their noodles around. ‘Bad Bad Daddy’, for example, bristles devilishly with black comedy as Slug embodies the worst dad in the world (“Playing with switchblades and matches / Pickpocketing the cash and the plastic / Getting high out back by the trashcans / Trying to get the waitress to give a lap dance / I can’t control them / So I’ma pretend I don’t know them”). Coupled with a mischievous, stripped down beat, it’s the epitome of a classic Atmosphere song. Elsewhere, the album’s first single ‘Just For Show’ indulges Ant’s proclivity for reggae-flavoured song writing.
Where the record really shines though, is when the group’s two new members get to play beyond backing duties. Collis’ affecting guitar and Anderson’s expressive piano playing in particular, together with Ant’s signature drums, reach levels of beauty that have only been hinted at in previous albums. Both lush and poignant, ‘Became’ is by far one of the album’s standout tracks. Similarly, ‘Something So’ and ‘My Notes’, although a little on the sweet side, help lend ‘The Family Sign’ its engaging, back to basics, laid back aesthetic.
Lyrically, Slug is insightful and witty as he ever was; again taking the role of narrator and telling tales that run the gamut of life’s relationships – from the lows of domestic violence to the (awesomely cheesy) highs of being with The One. ‘The Family Sign’ is Atmosphere bearing its soul – an ode to the most important people in your life, a reassurance that relationships gone sour are OK. 51 minutes long, it plays seamlessly from start to finish, yet still beats with a dynamism that makes it an intriguing listen. The overall introverted approach to the album may not satisfy fans that like their Atmosphere with a bit of boom and bap, and ‘You Can’t Imagine How Much Fun We’re Having’ it ain’t, but ‘The Family Sign’ shows that Slug, Ant and co. are still evolving – still defiantly doing their thing without compromise.
Words: Ian Hsieh
‘The Family Sign’ is out now on Rhymesayers.