SUN ATOMS – Ceiling Tiles / Tower Of Song

On their 2021 LP ‘Let There Be Light’, alternative rock band Sun Atoms shared some great music. That record’s quieter and more downbeat moments blended elements of goth pop with a very retro guitar twang, often falling somewhere between the classic, introspective songwriting of Leonard Cohen and the more contemporary moods of Tindersticks. When approaching busier sounds, the material mixed light electronica with spoken word passages. With other moments utilizing muted trumpets and very retro sounding backing vocals, the album was a pleasingly varied listening experience.

There was little about that record that would’ve suggested the band would have toured with the legendary Dinosaur Jr. With their ex-bassist Mike Johnson, maybe, since the band’s dour moods sometimes sound like a natural extension of that singer-songwriter’s sadcore sound (as heard on the brilliant ‘Year of Mondays’ and other recordings), but not Dinosaur Jr. The Sun Atoms world seemed just a little too low key for an audience waiting to see J Mascis and his array of distortion pedals. Nevertheless, opening for the JayLouMurph trio is exactly how Sun Atoms managed to kick of their 2024, ahead of sharing new material.

Their first new recorded fruits for the year came in the shape of this excellent two track release, pairing an original cut with a well chosen cover. Given how much bits of ‘Let There Be Light’ owed a debt to Leonard Cohen, it seems only natural that Sun Atoms would choose to put their mark on one of his most famous cuts. Their take on ‘Tower of Song’ conveys a similarly downbeat feel to Cohen’s work, but is anything but a quick and easy run-though, or mere disc filler. In fact, the only musical link to the original comes via its rhythm. Everything else has been rebuilt from the ground up. The near spoken vocal has been replaced with a sub-goth delivery – hushed tones that hiss with a great menace. The wordless backing vocal melody is weaved into the recording via a layer of distorted guitar, and the main tune is reworked from light 80s electronica into a shoegaze haze. Every change made is absolutely perfect for a recording that’s been subtitled “(In The Key of JAMC)”, since its easy to imagine Jesus And Mary Chain turning in something very similar during their ‘Darklands’ days.

As for the self-penned ‘Ceiling Tiles’, the warmer sound has a closer link with prior recordings, but the performance comes with a touch more energy. Against a pulsing bass, a quiet-ish vocal adds a very 80s atmosphere, and a clean-ish twanged guitar lays an intermittent melody that has a different kind of retro feel. It’s all good, but everything really comes together on the instrumental sections, especially in the place where you might expect to find a chorus. At that point, a broader guitar sound adds a ringing tone, and the programmed beats cut through with a real sharpness. There’s a very late 80s heart beating strongly, but Sun Atoms make their throwback sound feel fresh due to a great arrangement, and a really sharp production sound. If anything sticks here, though, its the number’s concession to an alternative groove that’s almost danceable – like a blend of peak Sisters of Mercy colliding with a dark synthpop band. For fans of the band’s previous recordings, there’s a familiar warmth and moodiness, but the more direct, slightly rockier approach certainly lifts everything in a way that makes Sun Atoms feel just a little more accessible. Overall, this is a great track; aloof enough not to feel commercial, yet commercial enough to have the potential to attract a slightly broader audience than before.

Even as a prequel to a planned full length album, this feels like a worthy and complete listening experience in its own right. The extra distortion gives Sun Atoms’ music a pleasingly angry aspect that wasn’t always present on ‘Let Their Be Light’, and their sharper riffs sound ready to attract a slightly different crowd, who will still likely enjoy what they hear, should they choose to backtrack. On the basis of this release, Sun Atoms are heading for even greater things. …And maybe being booked to open for Dinosaur Jr wasn’t such a strange appointment after all…

February 2024