The Smashing Pumpkins – ‘Atum: A Rock Opera in Three Acts’ Album Review

Photo Credit: Paul Elledge

During the early and mid ’90s, the Smashing Pumpkins (hailing from Chicago) became probably the most popular and influential band to come out of the alternative music boom who were not from (or connected to) the Seattle grunge scene. Lead singer/multi-instrumentalist/principal songwriter Billy Corgan dissolved the Pumpkins in 2000, but after failed attempts to launch a new band (Zwan) and a solo career, revived them just six years later, although by this point he’s seen the band through multiple line-ups of which he’s the only permanent member.

The Smashing Pumpkins have experienced dwindling chart success in their second period (their last studio effort Cyr peaked at #88 in 2020), and as a live act (they toured with Jane’s Addiction this past year), it’s safe to say that they’re probably well into their “just play the old stuff” phase. So it’s certainly a bold move – if nothing else – that Corgan has chosen now to undertake what may be the most ambitious project in the band’s history, a three-part album epic ATUM: A Rock Opera in Three Acts. The eleven-track “Act I” is the current release, with the second and third acts slated to come out next January and April, respectively.

Corgan isn’t exactly new to this sort of thing, as such ventures go back to at least 1995’s Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness, a double album that Corgan himself compared to Pink Floyd’s era-defining 1979 masterpiece The Wall (an analogy which not many others appear to have recognized). True to that spirit, this first section of ATUM  (that’s pronounced “autumn,” by the way) does open with an overture-like instrumental piece, no doubt intended to set the mood for the entire work. The track does include some pretty amazing guitar work (clearly inspired by the style of Floyd’s Dave Gilmour).

However, it’s the heavy synth that appears on the track which is much more telling of what we’re in for, as such instrumentation does dominate most of the record. Corgan for the most part puts them to excellent use, particularly on tracks such as “Steps in Time” and “Gold Mask.” Despite the Pumpkins being very much a product of the ’90s, many of the songs here have a distinctly ’80s synth sound, including “Embaler” and “Hooligan.”

Elements of the band’s commercial heyday turn up at random times on ATUM: Act One: “Good in Goodbye” is a bit more of a throwback to the band’s earlier Siamese Dream era with just a touch of Britpop, while “Butterfly Suite” (the title at least is probably an ode to their 1995 single “Bullet with Butterfly Wings”) opens as a quiet-ish mid-tempo track before picking up and then offering its own compelling third act in minor keys. Meanwhile, “Beyond the Vale” splits the difference, with both grunge-like guitars and a hard dance beat.

Corgan has stated that the entire ATUM project is meant as a continuation of a saga that began with the aforementioned Mellon Collie and then supposedly continued with 2000’s Machina/The Machines of God. We’ll take his word on that because another distinction of ATUM: Act One is that it’s impossible to understand just about any of the lyrics. Sure, incomprehensible vocalizing in rock music goes back at least to Little Richard, and Corgan always has kind of sung in such a style. But at the same time, this makes it hard to follow any sort of a narrative, as we’re seemingly supposed to be doing. Yet, most of the music on this first installment of ATUM shows that Corgan has not lost his touch as a songwriter and studio wizard, having evolved. We’ll have to wait on the remaining two installments of ATUM to decide whether he remains just as apt as a world-builder.

Written by: Richard John Cummins

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