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Gospel Cola
Artist: Atomic Opera
Label: Metal Blade
Time: 12 tracks/50:30

Jesus Junk
Atomic Opera has resurfaced from being in the realm of the independent artist to being back on a label.  A lot has changed for the band since their last label-backed effort, For Madmen Only.  Where that was an exercise in the excesses of pop-metal, this most recent album finds Frank Hart, Kemper Crabb, Ryan Birsinger, and John Simmons creating a hard rock work which is equal parts metal, medieval, and art rock.

The lead vocals are shared by Hart (who is the only member of the band who was there in their older album) and Crabb.  Both have similarly forceful lower baritone vocals, a nice complement to the music.  And the vocal harmonies are rich, and layered nicely, akin to labelmates King's X and Galactic Cowboys.

There are a lot of different instruments used, as well.  Hart plays guitar and cello as well as singing, Crabb plays mandolin, dulcimer, bouzouki, harmonica, and ocarina, as well as recorder and singing, Birsinger plays bass and sings, and Simmons plays drums and percussion. Most Metal Blade recordings don't have quite this variety of instrumentation!

It's almost indescribably weird to hear the medieval recorders and acoustic instruments at the start of "Malediction" give way to the crunching, overdriven electric guitars.  But the weirdness works.  Instead of sounding askew in any way, the song forms a unified whole, and an impassioned plea for the sanctity of the life of the unborn.

The lyrics on the album, along with the anti-abortion "Malediction" cover a wide range of themes. "Jesus Junk" covers the same turf as "Smash Hit" and "La La Land" did for All Star United, but with a much different tone and a lot more precision.  "October" discusses original sin and its effects. "Winterland" grabs its imagery from Narnia.  The list of themes goes on.

Despite the variety of themes and song styles, the album does come off as a coherent whole, and one that repays repeated listening.  A wonderful "comeback" effort by a band that never really went away, but disappeared just long enough to become a lot better.

Alex Klages 4/14/2000

Atomic Opera are an atypical hard rock band. Sure, Kansas had a violinist, and Jethro Tull had a flutist, but Atomic Opera sports Kemper Crabb playing a whole host of medieval-sounding instruments, including the mandolin, dulcimer, recorder, bozouki, ocarina, and the harmonica. This gives Atomic Opera an unusual and decidedly ancient vibe to their otherwise contemporary, postmodern metal. With Kemper Crabb also handling the vocals for a handful of these songs, the electric side of Arkangel meets Atomic Opera with effective style. The result is medievalish metal to melt your mind. 

Less funky than King's X and less quirky than Galactic Cowboys, Atomic Opera were always the most straight-forward of the three big Houston, Texas rock outfits. No longer. This new album not only draws fewer comparisons to their label mates than previous efforts, but further defines Atomic Opera as a different animal from them altogether. In short, they've better capitalized on what sets them apart, while still retaining some elements of their previous sound. This is most apparent on songs like "The Circle is Closed" which effectively pairs a liturgical influence with thick low-end grooves in a nearly industrial metal mix. 

Principal songwriter and front-man Frank Hart still wears his theologically thought-provoking musings on his sleeve. This time his insightful songs range from the satiric "Jesus Junk" to the worshipful "Doxology." The album opener, "Jesus Junk," is a biting look at the absurdity of merchandising Christianity. Although the lyrics are downright clever and even whimsical, the overall feeling of the song is a lament, which further reinforces the message's irony. 

    I want a Virgin Mary nightlamp
    Bible hero lunch box
    The Shroud of Turin on my wristwatch
    Only listen to Christian...Rock

This particular song's theme is also played out in a number of comical comments in the liner notes and packaging, including:

    Contains thrice the sugar of secular colas. 
    Gospel Cola contains no worldly flesh.

And my personal favorite: 

    Warning: Traces of Neo Platonism and Pietism may lead to chronic stupidity. 

The rest of the songs are equally as lyrically inspired.  One of the album's standout tracks, Crabb's "Reiah Discerns the Times," is a fascinating look at the apocalypse as a present rather than future condition. Both Crabb and Hart share vocal duty on "Malediction," which is part powerful pro-life statement, and part heartfelt prayer for justice and mercy. Among the most intriguing songs, "Silence" reminds us that God communicates through silences as effectively as His words. Making the followers of Frankie Schaeffer burst into an understanding grin, "Muse" is another lament about the dismal state of true art even among an overabundance of so-called artists. "Doxology" ends the album perfectly with a poetic picture of the universal church body longing to be united to their groom. Of course, as is the case with such articulate writers as Hart and Crabb, these quick song snapshots merely scratch at the rich surface of their textual efforts. 

Overall, Gospel Cola boasts superb production values, with powerful lyrics set to well-played music. Atomic Opera's fourth album also flirts with a welcome variety of tempos, undergirded by a strong contemporary take on hard rock, and some excellent musical flourishes that set this work apart from anything you've heard before. Kicking back with a can of Gospel Cola is recommended for full soul refreshment . 

Steven S. Baldwin   9/5/00


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