Jesse D. Leach is the vocalist of Killswitch Engage, Times of Grace and The Empire Shall Fall. He has visited every continent except Antarctica. He is a lover of good music, good food, especially pizza, and good, down-to-earth people. You can follow him on Twitter here and Killswitch Engage here.
A few days before I left for tour, a copy of Atmosphere’s new album Southsiders arrived in my inbox. I was tied up doing last-minute tour preparation things, packing and getting ready for three weeks of chaos out on the road. Normally I like to wait for an opportune and peaceful place and time to digest new music but, despite being distracted, I decided to start listening to the album so I could begin to sink my teeth into it.
That being said, I am quite familiar with Atmosphere.
Around 2002, I shared a house with five roommates, and among them was Sage Francis. (For those who don’t know, Sage is an amazing poet and MC from Rhode Island.) Now, mind you, I have loved hip-hop since I was a kid living in the ghettos of Philadelphia in the 1980s, but Sage was tuned into a whole other scene of underground hip-hop artists and poets, among them the Minnesota hip-hop duo Atmosphere. I was writing Alive or Just Breathing with Killswitch Engage (our second album, released in 2002), he was writing Personal Journals (his debut studio album, also released in 2002) and Sage and I would compare notes. Of course, we would also just talk about music and play each other new stuff.
Sage had a real respect for Atmosphere; there was a connection. He really bonded with their MC Slug (aka Sean Daley) when they did shows together. They were very different people but there was a mutual unspoken respect, or so it seemed to me.
At that time a lot of my peers were bumping Atmosphere, especially the ladies. Ladies loved Slug because he had a certain appeal and swagger to him, but there was also a poetry and emotional honesty that came through in his music. And I can still relate to the bouts of pessimism versus optimism that he talks about frequently. I remember that I was immediately drawn to the song “God Loves Ugly” from the 2002 album of the same name. The lyrics speak of struggle and determination (“Been paying dues for a decade plus/Before that I was just another face on the bus”) and Slug’s vocal delivery is smooth yet filled with piss and vinegar. Production-wise there’s not much more to it than boom-bap drums and a piano loop, but at first listen I loved it — it was unique and it felt important. In a time when mainstream hip-hop was glorifying money and a lavish lifestyle, you had groups in the underground like Atmosphere on a whole other level, with a whole different set of concerns. Atmosphere was poetry in motion and raw storytelling, with a DJ and producer, Anthony “Ant” Davis, who didn’t sample the same old overused funk and soul grooves.
The thing that hit me right away about Southsiders, the group’s eighth album, is that Slug has grown. He is 12 years older than the guy who made God Loves Ugly, and I love that his lyrics reflect that. There is something that feels more experienced, more level-headed about his approach and his perspective on life. It feels like Slug is a little less angst-ridden and more reflective on this record. What I liked about Atmosphere back in 2002 is what I like in 2014; I can relate to what Slug says. The lyrics reflect a man dealing with his demons, being introspective and at the same time telling you a story.
I expected to be at the very least a decent record. It didn’t immediately blow me away, but my head was nodding, and I heard some clever lines and beats. The title track was the first one to jump out at me. Slug’s delivery (“We want what we want/We ain’t trying to settle/We last forever through the echo/Some say special/ Some say essential”) is a bit more energetic compared to the rest of the album, and I love the distorted, tremolo-laden guitar licks that Ant laces throughout the track, they nicely compliment the booming bass. If this isn’t the “single,” it should be. But “January on Lake Street” might be my favorite track. It starts with a piano that sounds like something from a Tim Burton movie, eerie and atmospheric (pun not intended), and then female backing vocals and pounding drums start building up the tension as Slug rhymes about passion and success: “And each broken glass shows a different view/I deal the truth y’all pick and choose/This ain’t a game for you to win or lose/But I never been in your shoes.”
Southsiders is good overall and the more I hear it, the more it grows on me. However, the pulse and feel gets a bit monotone at times. That doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a bad album, just a mostly laid back one, as the vocal delivery and the BPM and the loops all have the same feel, and there are a few moments during this record that I find myself drifting. I’m not sure if that’s just the fatigue of having tour-weary ears or the steady tempos that seem to prevail in the midsection. It doesn’t feel like there are many peaks or valleys, but again the more I listen, the better this album gets, and I pick up on something new: a lyric, a nuance in the beats or a layer I hadn’t heard the first time around.
I have respect for Slug and Ant, they’ve been putting out quality music for well over a decade and they’ve developed a style all their own. In a perfect world, these guys would take the place of other hip-hop groups that have much more popularity and half the talent and cred. Southsiders is a good addition to the Atmosphere catalogue, and I’m sure a few of these tracks will make it into their live set. This one is a grower for me, and I will still be bumping it in the near future.