Aural Impressions: Coldplay, Atlas

Well, this is weird.  Normally, I would write an Aural Impressions post only for an album release, and usually within a few days give or take of the release date.  I’m over three months late here.  It is, however, Coldplay, which was once upon a time my favorite band, and they’ve put out basically no other new material in the last two years.  Their second album A Rush of Blood to the Head remains my favorite album of all time, with their 2008 release Viva La Vida or Death and All His Friends punctuating one of my favorite periods of my life.  I didn’t really get into their latest album Mylo Xyloto, for various reasons, so I’ve been missing new Coldplay to latch onto, to fill a sentimental hole in my music collection.  The song Atlas from The Hunger Games: Catching Fire soundtrack has been a breath of fresh air in their catalog.  It follows their current material nicely, but also incorporates signature sounds that have been missing for a few years now.  It was released in September and the film in which it appears debuted in theaters two weeks ago.

It starts out with solo piano.  Always a good sign.  It’s spacey and vacant, distant and somewhat ethereal.  The visuals of the lyric video certainly help drive that home.  The piano chords that come in pull down the open fifth and octave arpeggio down into a minor progression.  This style is, to me, the signature of post-2007 Coldplay.  The music is somewhat complex, far more than anything that appears on their first three albums.  It’s of the sort heard on songs like 42 from Viva La Vida and Moving to Mars, a B-side from the Every Teardrop is a Waterfall single (my absolute favorite “unreleased” track and sort of a spiritual companion to Atlas).  The lyrics are literary and mythical, another mark of this era of writing.  They’re simple, written in short fragments, yet they paint a futuristic, slightly bellicose picture.  I imagine they fit tonally and thematically with The Hunger Games, since I’ve never read the books or seen the films.  Singer Chris Martin at times delves into the lower register for the vocal melody, which is a change I always appreciate.  On 2005’s X&Y, his falsetto was incredibly overdone; in contrast, the song Yes from Viva La Vida, is among my favorites in great part due to its ominous baritone vocals.  Despite all of this, the solo piano motif of the verses is a lovely callback to the band’s origins, recalling songs like Trouble and Amsterdam.  They’ve put out very few songs like this since 2008, so to me it’s a very welcome sound.

As the chorus enters and the word “explode” is sung, a deep bass suddenly enters, like a distant explosion (a supernova, judging by the video).  It opens up the song, releasing the claustrophobia of the solo piano and beckoning the chorus forward.  I get shivers every time.  The piano shifts into a major key progression and the vocals soar.  Sort of.  They’re the one thing that I don’t particularly like about this song.  The vocals are executed very matter-of-fact-ly and I feel there’s a certain passion missing from the delivery.

The second verse adds a sense of urgency and movement with a fluttering hi-hat alongside the piano, now joined by bass and a subtle reverb-heavy tremolo guitar.  As the second chorus enters, a few things happen: the vocal track is doubled and overlaid, which creates a wider stereo impression but also adds a unique timbre to the sound.  In addition, a gently wailing guitar fades in and floats over everything, heavily reminiscent of the kind heard in the song Spies from Parachutes.  To me, that is the strongest tie to the old featured in the song.atlas1

The second chorus blasts the sonic environment even more open, adding crashing drums and bringing the guitar from the verse to the forefront.  As the stars shine and dance in the video, astral sound effects are added to the production.  This chorus repeats a second time with vocal harmonies echoed above and beyond those heard in the first run, leading into a solo bridge.  To solidify its position in the modern Coldplay-era, additional signature sounds, namely a crisp melodical guitar solo from guitarist Jonny Buckland and the unmistakeable sharp stacatto of a dulcimer, heard previously on tracks like Life in Technicolor, join the mix.  The focal piano is strong and driving, whilst the guitar and dulcimer dance over it, following the lead of the stars in the video.  Or perhaps it’s the other way?

As the solo ends, the guitar reverbs over a descending piano progression, which reminds me a little bit of Absolution-era Muse (the outro of Ruled By Secrecy, specifically).  The ending is short, though much shorter than I feel it should be.  However, its brevity prevents it from overstaying its welcome; a repeat of that progression may have seemed clunky or awkward.  The Spies-style guitar from the track’s second half fades in and out, diminishing slightly during the outro before returning and ultimately being the last sound on the track.

It’s a fantastic, yet simple and compact track.  The lyrics create a mythical atmosphere, while the accompanying video pulls them skyward.  I love everything about the musical direction, the unsettling and uplifting chord progressions, the peaceful arpeggios, and the fluid visuals of the video that together create a spine-tingling sensual experience.  It’s all done incredibly well.  Having been somewhat let down by Coldplay’s work of late, my hopes for their new material (whenever that should appear) are now much higher.  Since they’re now working chiefly with producer Rik Simpson, instead of the highly influential Brian Eno, it follows that they might just continue to push this style in the future.  Here’s hoping they do.

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