The Phantom Tollbooth
 
Alpha & Oranges 
Artist: Atomic Opera 
Label: Indie - Fan club release available at the following URL 
URL: http://www.dennislange.com/ao.html 
Length: 47:30 time / 10 tracks 
Houston, Texas is a big place. Big enough to boast three melodic groove metal bands with some striking similarities. King's X and the Galactic Cowboys may be better known, but the triumvirate of Houston's hard rock talent is incomplete without considering their lesser known colleagues, Atomic Opera. All three bands share a similar sound, despite some differences ranging from obvious to subtle. They have all worked with super-producer Sam Taylor Wilde Silas) at one point or another (he produced this album), and all three can now be found at Metal Blade Records. At different points in their musical careers all have operated within a Christian worldview framework, although some have been more vocal about their faith over time than others.
 
If King's X and the Galactic Cowboys represent the Pearl Jam and Nirvana's of the Houston hard-rock sound, Atomic Opera is the Soundgarden of the bunch. They have a more consistent  metal edge than their peers, never quite reached the same zenith of popularity, and have fewer hits to show for it.  Building on those melodic groove metal vibes that made the other two bands successful, Atomic Opera offered their own spin on the style. Although for a virtually unknown band, selling 20,000 copies of a debut record is nothing to sneeze at. Alpha & Oranges is an entertaining prequel collection of out-takes from before their 1994 debut album, For Madmen Only. The official Atomic Opera web site explains: "The ten songs that are chosen to be on this CD tell a story. It is a musical story of a band discovering itself. These ten songs show the progression of a band from its first weeks together...up to the point where it records its first national CD." And it's a worthy story with songs that are nearly as well produced and energetically played as any you'll hear in their subsequent albums. Eschewing the groovy soul of King's X and the quirkiness of the Galactic Cowboys, Atomic Opera stick to a more straight-forward melodic metal style. Most of the songs here adhere closely to expected territory and serve as excellent foreshadowing of what was to come.  "Feverdream #1" puts on a more aggressive face, while others like "All These Things" are more progressive. "Magic Castle" is happily hopeful, and both "Rain Parade" and "Paper Tiger" are downright catchy. Only a few moments are too plodding to sustain interest. Throughout the requisite hooks and harmonies flow in abundance.
 
Atomic Opera is primarily Frank Hart's brain-child. A talented songwriter, guitar player and vocalist who bears only a passing resemblance to Chris Cornell at his most gut-wrenching wail. His original artwork, "Picasso Christ," also graces the cover. No slouch cerebrally, Hart writes songs for the hard rocking, thinking-man. Many songs deal with the difference between the way the world is disturbingly perceived today from the reality that is found only through true Christ- like spirituality. Although we truly live our lives in a confusing, distrustful, broken place, the answer to what really ails us is simple, indeed. The feelings of being in a big, Machiavellian masquerade that Hart accurately captures in "Rain Parade" are universal:
There's something haunting about a clown
With a smile that is painted on
And my mask is an empty stare
And the rain is falling everywhere
When the laughter gets the best of me
And I feel like a violent fool
In my dream where it all came true
Where my heart has broken every rule
Time goes and days pass by and
All my memory fades
In the rain parade.
There is a been-there-and-heard-that quality to much of this work, but these were Atomic Opera's formative years when their influences were more  prominent. Frank Hart himself is likely to admit that this CD does not represent Atomic Opera's best work. To paraphrase a line from Monty Python's Holy Grail, "They got better." Yet, the overall quality of production, songwork, and musicianship indicate that Atomic Opera's nuclear reaction was ready to reach critical mass.
 
Steven S. Baldwin 7/13/99