In our recent interview, The Mute Gods mastermind Nick Beggs (vocals, bass, guitar) aptly described the trio’s latest outing, Atheists and Believers, as a relatively poppy album, whereas “The first record [2016’s Do Nothing till You Hear from Me] has an alternative/progressive rock blueprint to it [and] the second one [2017’s Tardigrades Will Inherit the Earth] has more of a metal subcurrent.” Indeed, this third outing from the trio—which is completed by Marco Minnemann (drums) and Roger King (keyboards, guitar)—definitely maintains some of its predecessors’ intricate and industrial DNA, yet it immediately and consistently also provides catchier and warmer songwriting and arrangements. As a result, it’s a surprisingly different and diverse sequence that many devotees—myself included—will enjoy even more than those first two collections.
Despite its more accessible and jovial surfaces, Atheists and Believers still upholds The Mute Gods’ highly critical and controversial social criticisms and commentaries. Specifically, Beggs notes, “The growth of populism has been a big contributor to the lyrical content of this one. . . . We’re not interested in the truth anymore. We’d rather put people in power who are stupid and who tell us what we want to hear” before adding (in the press release) that “we must change this course as a species or we will all die. . . It would appear history teaches us nothing when vested interests are at stake. We are manifesting congenital myopia in denial of the responsibilities we have to each other and, more importantly, to the planet.” It’s quite an accomplishment, then, that the trio is able to house such biting and intellectual feedback beneath such overtly welcoming aural embroideries.
Helping them accomplish this feat are a few notable guests, including Rush guitarist Alex Lifeson, drummer Craig Blundell (with whom Beggs plays as part of Steven Wilson's current band), multi-instrumentalist Robert Townsend (Steve Hackett), and even Beggs’ daughter, Lula. Fortunately, all three collaborations came naturally and easily (rather than, say, from the band knocking on doors and hoping for responses). Their appearances may be brief and subtle, but each one effectively broadens the techniques and timbres of Atheists and Believers.
The aforementioned commercial appeal of the record is apparent right away, as the opening title track’s concoction of breezy rhythms and psychedelic guitar arpeggios and effects ably assist Beggs’ smooth verses and fetching choruses. While justifiably judgmental line-by-line, it wisely remains captivating and reachable for all listeners due to its beguiling melodies and tones. At the risk of sounding cliché, it truly is Beatles-esque in its sunny disposition, and fortunately, the same can be said for the more symphonic “One Day” (during which Lifeson obviously shines) and the delightfully quirky and dynamic “Knucklehead.” Elsewhere, the sequential duo of “Old Men” and “The House Where Love Once Lived” offers more bittersweet acoustic ballads with lovely harmonies and woodwind accompaniments. The closing piano-based instrumental, “I Think of You,” should be mentioned in the same breath because of its poignant simplicity, whereas the midway instrumental, “Sonic Boom,” is fun and colorful in ways that evoke the playfulness of artists like Brother Ape and Rikard Sjöblom.
Although the majority of Atheists and Believers leans toward that brighter and/or more modest approach, there are certainly shades of The Mute Gods traditional darkness scattered around. For instance, “Envy the Dead” features metallic guitar tones and feistier rhythms; afterward, “Iridium Heart” is tribal, dissonant, and threatening (especially with the effects on Beggs’ proclamations), like a sleeker leftover from Wilson’s The Raven that Refused to Sing. The penultimate “Twisted World Godless Universe” begins with beautifully ominous orchestration prior to expanding into a macabre and forceful composition whose lighter shades are made more impactful by that menacing majority. The fact that it leads into the starkly different “I Think of You” also helps highlight how multifaceted the LP is in general.
Atheists and Believers not only upholds a considerable amount of what’s always made The Mute Gods a characteristic and essential ensemble, but it finds the trio fearlessly and boldly sticking to a substantially fresh aesthetic for most of its runtime. Of course, it’s all still very recognizable and fitting within the trio’s wheelhouse, but those who grew accustomed to what their first two albums offered will definitely find some new avenues traveled here. How that affects your ranking will depend on what you like most about their chemistry—obviously—but for my money, this is easily the superlative chapter of the thematic trilogy and perhaps the best evidence yet of how gifted Beggs is as singer and all-around band leader.