Concert Review: Atlas Genius at Music Hall of Williamsburg: 2/20/2013
There’s a unique feeling you get when you’re in early on a band, like you’re in on a secret that you know will eventually come out, but until it does you’re one of the special privileged few. Several months ago I saw Atlas Genius perform at Terminal 5 as the opener for Cloud Nothings, who in turn were opening for Silversun Pickups. At that time, despite having had a ubiquitous hit radio song (“Trojans”) for months, Atlas Genius was hardly known at all and the crowd for their set was unsurprisingly sparse. Their performance was relatively brief but showed a glimpse of how talented they were. Despite not knowing any songs other than “Trojans” – Atlas Genius hadn’t yet released a full album – the crowd gained energy through the set and cheered loudly when it was over. (This was a far cry from what would later happen for Cloud Nothings, as I touched upon here, showing that the tough T5 crowd would only support that which they enjoyed.) After their set, a few band members hung out near the merchandise table greeting fans. I felt compelled to walk over and tell them how much I enjoyed their performance. Keith (the lead singer) and his brother Mike (drums) were very gracious to me and the others waiting to meet them and say hello. With that positive experience stored away, I naturally had high expectations for Atlas Genius’ headlining show last night at Music Hall of Williamsburg, celebrating the release of their debut album, When It Was Now, which was released just one day prior.
I arrived at MHoW somewhat late and so I missed most of opening band Gospels, though what little bit I heard was good enough to set a proper tone. The venue was not crowded at all; I have been there many times before and typically if I had arrived that late I would be stuck near the back of the floor. Instead I easily walked up to within 5 feet of the stage well before Atlas Genius took the stage. In a clever bit of keeping the crowd’s attention during the lull between sets, a crew came out to prep the instruments dressed in white gear and colored masks – a robot crew of sorts. It had the aura of the Blue Man Group or Daft Punk, except that eventually it became clear that no performance would be forthcoming from the robotic men. Still, it heightened the anticipation.
Atlas Genius finally came out and opened with their current single “Symptoms,” a decent enough radio song but not one that delighted the crowd as much the band probably hoped. Next was “On A Day,” a song I haven’t heard before but one that had a lot more firepower to it than the opener. This was to become a theme of the night: The show was very uneven, with boring pop songs with too-obvious hooks that would fall flat, mixed in with stronger songs with more interesting overall sounds that would suddenly engage the crowd. For example, after the very good “On A Day” came “All These Girls,” a boring song if there ever was one, which was then followed up with “If So,” which is probably the band’s best song (and apparently will be their first single off the new album). And so continued the trend. As a few more songs were played, the crowd began to get a little bored. The music was certainly good, but nothing special. It lacked energy. People were noticeably looking down at their phones, tweeting/texting/doing anything but listening, including people as close to the stage as I was. I could have easily walked right up to the stage at just about any point in the show and no one would have stopped me. At any decent show that isn’t the case. People should be jumping up and down, pushing towards the front, trying to get as close to the band as possible. In this case, while the music may have seemed deceptively good, if the crowd isn’t excited it’s safe to say that the band is probably doing something wrong. This all culminated in a story by Keith describing the meaning behind the song “Don’t Make A Scene” (about a boy losing a girl at a music festival or something) and then the song itself, a painfully dull pop number. I had all but given up on the night right there.
Three more songs were left to be played – main set closer “Electric” and post-encore break “Through the Glass” and “Trojans.” With these three songs Atlas Genius redeemed an otherwise lackluster night. “Electric” is a bass-heavy rock song. Actually, “bass-heavy” doesn’t do it justice. My heart pounded. The floor shook. It kind of felt like my ears were being raped, but in a good way. I began to wonder whether the song is called “Electric” because this is the feeling you get when sitting in an electric chair. The band definitely had my attention. After what seemed like an eternity “Electric” concluded and I prepared to wait for an encore, but the band took only about 30 seconds between disappearing and reappearing from the stage. When they returned, the bass remained turned up for “Through the Glass” – again, a song I’ve never heard of before but one of the night’s stand-outs – and then, after a joke about the show being over, was the song that everyone was waiting for. “Trojans” is a typical indie-pop anthem that any self-respecting Alt Nation fan knows every word to. And sing along they did, as Atlas Genius hammed it up for the crowd, leaving everyone walking away feeling good about themselves, the night and Atlas Genius.
Except me. To be frank, I felt a little used. On the way out of the show I bumped into a buddy of mine who said “hey, they rocked, right?” I agreed (because why ruin his good feeling) but honestly the entire performance felt too staged, too empty for me. There were multiple references to the record release and to the fact that the show was being played live on Sirius’ Alt Nation. Early in the show Keith made a reference to “a song off of our upcoming album. I guess I mean our album, since it’s now released.” It was blatantly obvious that this was a deliberate slip-up. Every “thank you,” every anecdote, every little aside to the crowd was (or at least appeared to be) scripted, a feeling that was enforced by the notes on the set list. An up and coming band playing a small room in Brooklyn should be one with the crowd, not pandering to it. And I firmly believe that on talent alone this band has the capacity to be really good. They show that when they perform those songs that veer off the obvious path just enough. They need less “Symptoms,” more “Electric.” (Don’t we all.) I feel bad saying this too, because I got to meet Keith and Mike again after the show and they are both really nice guys (check out the signed set list). They’d probably be a blast to hang out with and left alone could probably put on a damn good show. But their one hit was so big that they seem to have already gone the way of trying to cash in quickly. I fear that in a few years we’ll have forgotten Atlas Genius ever existed, and if they’re remembered at all it will be for one song that for one summer was almost as popular as that summer’s biggest hits (hint: Gotye’s “Somebody That I Used to Know” and fun’s “We Are Young”). And if comparing unfavorably to Gotye is your ultimate legacy, you haven’t done very well. I hope going forward Atlas Genius trusts their talent more and their advisors less. In any event, I walked out without any desire to purchase album – I’ll download it eventually I suppose – which, given my high hopes and general eagerness to like new music, not to mention my prime spot 5 feet from the stage during the show, doesn’t bode well for this band’s future.
 “Through the Glass” is also the name of the band’s first EP which was released in 2012. However, the EP doesn’t have a song named “Through the Glass” on it; only the newly released LP does. Hmmm.