Billed as the third instalment in a trilogy of albums comprised of 1995’s diamond-certified opus Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness and 2000’s Machina/The Machines of God, ATUM can be described as a sonic amalgamation of the Pumpkins’ celebrated, if also complicated, history. It reinforces how few artists operate with the same level of ambition as Billy Corgan, who typically thrives in the challenge of writing grand statements. After all, he makes what sounds like a laborious effort—a 33-track conceptual piece split into three acts—look effortless. To Corgan, it’s practically second nature, but it’s worth noting that his idea to write a rock opera didn’t appear out of thin air. Corgan began to build the pieces of ATUM as far back as 2018, when he regained his footing by venturing into back-to-basics guitar rock (SHINY AND OH SO BRIGHT, VOL. 1) after welcoming guitarist James Iha back into the fold. Specifically, the intergalactic plotting of the track “Alienation”, which Corgan revealed via his podcast Thirty-Three—where he premiered new tracks while breaking down the album’s story in the lead-up to its official release—was a significant stepping-stone to dreaming up the album’s extensive lore. Clocking in at nearly two and a half hours, ATUM delivers a complex mix of dystopian themes, ranging from the dangers of technocracy and fatalism to the permissibility of suppressing free speech. Make of that what you will, but no one can deny that Corgan is very much in his element. While it’s not necessary to follow along with ATUM’s story—which traces the journey of a rock star named Shiny, who’s been exiled in space—it does enrich the experience. Or, at the very least, help make loose connections as to how Corgan confronts his own mythology head-on through the character. Easier to grasp, though, is its aural grandiosity, which makes an immediate impression on the lavish title track, a space-rock opener with a sci-fi bent featuring a piano accompaniment from frequent David Bowie collaborator Mike Garson. The use of vintage synths lingers throughout most of the album, adding a gothic flair to tracks like “With Ado I Do” and “Fireflies”, recalling the slinky electro-pop of 2020’s CYR. Similarly, the tautly arranged “Space Age” and “The Canary Trainer” evoke ’80s-inspired soft-rock ballads at their most resplendent. And then there’s the sprawling prog rock of “The Culling” and “Sojourner”, which, much to the chagrin of Pumpkins naysayers who’d rather hear them rock circa 1993, better resembles the classic AOR stylings of Styx. Still, there’s plenty of rock for them, too. While the sludgy and psychedelic “Empires” sounds like a modern reworking of anything off Gish, the stomping single “Beguiled” and “Beyond the Vale” give off a metallic sheen that’s more new wave of British heavy metal. Even the chugging “Harmageddon”, one of the heaviest tracks here, sees the band dive headfirst into pure thrash. There’s a self-awareness to his songwriting that adds to the album’s sad yet hopeful lightness, proving that his maximalist instincts cohere best when he’s genuinely having fun.

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