True to its title, Congregation of the Damned is a much darker album than anything else that Atreyu has has released to date. The album shows Atreyu, 11 years after forming, for lack of a better word, “maturing.” Mind you, “mature” is the type of word that may send stalwart metal fans to make like Iron Maiden and run for the hills, a word usually reserved for referring to a band adopting a trendier, more radio-friendly/neutered sound in an attempt to be taken more seriously (à la Green Day).
While there are, admittedly, a few moments on the album where Atreyu treads dangerously into this sort of territory (particularly on the Nickleback-ish, Saliva-y ballad “Wait For You”), most of the songs showcase Atreyu at their darkest and heaviest. Anger, frustration, and hopelessness are the main thematic focal points of the album. Taken as an otherwise rather cohesive whole, Congregation of the Damned feels bigger and more polished than anything the band has attempted before. Nevertheless, the band’s more dyed-in-the-wool metalcore fans may (unfairly) turn their noses up at this more melodic direction due to the band incorporating a number of metal styles and not solely sticking to the metalcore manual.
Despite its unwieldy title, the disc’s opener, “Stop! Before It’s Too Late and We’ve Destroyed It All”, concisely sets the tone for the entire album. Creating a dark sense of urgency with its flurry of guitar pyrotechnics peppering the intro, the song offsets Atreyu’s growth and ability to structure a song to pack the most punch. Similarly, the simulation of a string quartet on “Bleeding is a Luxury” merges perfectly along with bass-driven guitar riffs and staccato drum rolls, providing a sharp contrast that works with, rather than against the song.
Atreyu has always had a fondness for incorporating elements (or covering songs) of their metal forebears, and “Coffin Nails” and the Pantera-influenced “Black Days Begin” have a very old school feel to them. Musically, “Coffin Nails” sounds like an unearthed relic from metal’s golden age — all epic solos, pristine structuring and shifting minor keys thrown in for good measure. Lyrically, however, it feels very “new school” metal. It’s not quite emo, screamo, Elmo Pio, or whatever “O” you can think of, but rather a much heavier beast that’s hard to classify. Meanwhile, the album’s title track pulls together older and newer elements of Atreyu’s sound with their signature gang vocals on the chorus and distorted, minor-key dives on the bridge before its breakdown.
From there, Atreyu breaks out the heavy artillery. The militaristic-themed “You Were the King, Now You’re Unconscious” kicks off with a lengthy two-minute intro, building towards Brandon Saller flying around the kit and throttling damn near everything in sight on the verses, giving the feel of a war march before bleeding into a surprisingly melodic chorus. In keeping with a more hardcore sound, “Ravenous” brutalizes with Alex Varkatzas’s rip-the-voicebox-out-of-your-throat vocals and a headbanging blend of galloping drums pounding out the steady, punishing beat.
While Varkatzas’s agro-blast screams are unparalleled, his toneless vocals on “So Wrong” seem, well… so wrong. While I can appreciate his vocal vulnerability playing its part on the song’s emotional lyrics, the song (literally) falls flat. On the flipside, Atreyu’s most successful stab at a (pseudo) ballad on Congregation of the Damned, the catchy “Lonely”, feels very theatrical and cinematic in scope with the classic ’80s metal riffs that chug then soar.
It would be a disservice to how good of an album Congregation of the Damned is to say it’s not as heavy as older material in Atreyu’s catalog. While the disc leans more towards melodic metal than their previous stuff, the accent is firmly on metal. Attreyu’s sound has always been hard to pin down, however, Congregation of the Damned features less rap-rock and metal-punk influence and more straightforward melodies. The trademark gang vocals are still there, as are the melodic choruses. Alex Varkatzas still screams and Brandon Saller picks up the slack where more singing is required. The elaborate guitar work and throwback solos courtesy of Atreyu’s two axe men, Dan Jacobs and Travis Miguel, are as much a part of the band’s sound as ever. In fact, this time around, Atreyu is just as heavy, if not more so.