It’s our Bandcamp Picks of the Week, featuring some scuzzy Pittsburgh punk with Barlow’s WALLS OF FUTURE, and some soulful studio wizardry with Marcus Atom’s LOVE VS. WAR!
Marcus Atom – LOVE VS. WAR
Genre: Soul, Synth Pop, R&B
Favorite Tracks: “Son Of A Bad Man,” “Love Vs. War” “After Hours”
Marcus Atom’s journey down the path to recording and releasing his debut album, LOVE VS. WAR, has been anything but ordinary, filled with strife and personal reflection in equal measure. Atom has managed to translate his diverse influences in the Chicago music scene into a lovely and striking album that’s a product of the past five years. Atom juggled bartending duties in Chicago and session drumming at Gravity Studios, work at Steve Albini’s famed Electric Studios and time spent with drummer Matt Walker of Smashing Pumpkins. And yet, Atom also grew close with soulful group The O’Mys and Chicago hip-hop collective SAVEMONEY. It’s a dizzying array of influences and experiences that kept Atom a busy man, but balancing music and time in the service industry proved a taxing challenge.
You might say that, like the mixture of both bright and moody sonic landscapes on LOVE VS. WAR, there was a light at the end of the tunnel. It all came to a head when Atom got a call from an unlikely source: Twilight Tone, then producing the 2017 Gorillaz album HUMANZ. Atom’s vocal prowess gained new supporters and provided a buoy in the choppy waters of the music industry, eventually inspiring him to get it all down on tape, so to speak, with LOVE VS. WAR.
How does this all lend itself to a modern record that blends soul, funk, and pop? Quite handily, it turns out, with production that lets each influence and element shine. Lead track “Son Of A Bad Man” is a stage-setting foray that showcases how well Atom can deliver on his disparate influencers: It’s also fresh and of the moment. Atom’s recent appearance on an Audiotree Live session drives home the fact these tracks play remarkably well live, and aren’t just the product of standalone studio wizardry. LOVE VS. WAR has plenty of standouts. Tracks like “After Hours” transport you into a “5 a.m.” world, calling to mind the soulful synth pop of The Weeknd. The title track itself is a dreamy, funky look at late nights and white lies because “We know it’s worth fighting for.” The album’s 13 songs are beautifully produced, both modern and a product of Atom’s work as a drummer and his time in production studios. As a debut album after a years of upward struggle, it’s a fitting encapsulation of Marcus Atom, but one senses we haven’t heard the last of him yet. You can find the record on Bandcamp. [Beau Hayhoe]
Barlow – WALLS OF FUTURE
Genre: Lo-fi Punk, Shoegaze, Power Pop
Favorite Tracks: “Object Of…,” “Sucko,” “Arm of Gold,” “Makes My Life”
Pittsburgh’s industrious history doesn’t include many advancements in lo-fi music like its distant neighbors in Philadelphia, but the Steel City’s work ethic makes sense for a band like Barlow. Since forming in 2010, the self-proclaimed “loud pop” trio have quietly built a treasure trove of tape-warbled guitar anthems on Bandcamp, spanning four albums, an armful of EPs, and three demo compilations, not including their sprawling Guided by Voices tribute album. A love for intimidating outputs aside, Robert Pollard couldn’t be a more apt idol for Barlow’s Ethan Oliva, who similarly refuses to sacrifice his hook-driven ambitions to the limits of the Tascam his band faithfully records everything on.
In a sense, WALLS OF FUTURE continues to tinker with the formula Barlow’s been working on for over a decade: urgent, power poppy blasts stitched with shoegazing tape experiments, sutured together by Oliva’s commanding howl. FUTURE is also one of the most compelling lo-fi albums in recent memory, never mind the band’s strongest to date. Look to the 52-second “Icon,” which wastes no time locking in a no-frills vision of pop punk before fleshing it out one song later with the sugary, Pollard-esque “Object of…” Where Barlow’s recording quality and experimenting are both part of their charm and a cause of murkiness at times, FUTURE finds Barlow at their most clear-eyed. In one stretch, the band sprint through a pair of longing grunge ballads (“Sucko,” “At Home”), psychy shoegaze (“Arm of Gold”), and shimmering, peak Captured Tracks-core dream pop (“Makes My Life”) without once sounding out of place.
There’s a nostalgic kind of hope to FUTURE, and about Barlow as a whole. It’s the same feeling as seeing a band at a VFW hall and being unironically convinced their songs deserve to play on arena speakers and every beer-soaked jukebox at a dive bar. Guided by Voices is again an ideal (albeit inimitable) success story in that regard, but Barlow sounds ready and happy to wait for that potential speaker upgrade. Check it out on Bandcamp here. [Tim Gagnon]