Subtle pop pleasures lurk amid this techno-adjacent club record's progressive manifesto.
This fits the activist and experimental artist as we've come to know her. But the music inside ATØ's record sleeve is Ziúr with a twist. On her second album, the producer's sharpest edges have been softened. Each track, at least compared to the disruptive club sounds on her last LP, has a melodic, pleasing sense of flow. Still, ATØ is no cake walk. The production ideas vary wildly, from sweet pop ballad to smoldering field of noise, haunting ambience to DJ-friendly club tune (a rare find in the artist's catalog).
The extremes work together because Ziúr's track sequencing is smooth. The album starts off soft and glowing, picking up zippy synths and trap-style hi-hats as it moves along. In the mid-section, "F.O.E." and "Catch Me Never" show the hard-hitting, rhythm-breaking Ziúr of the past. Afterwards, ATØ winds down with melancholic experiments like "Laniakea," whose alien synths recall Arca, and the closer, "Mother," a drumless sound collage that feels both synthesized and organic at once.
Along this winding journey, Ziúr introduces lyrics, sung by her and guest vocalists, to drive home the album's message of solidarity. The choice of words is generally optimistic ("I will leave this place / Knowing I have loved" on the title track), while also lending a supportive hand to the listener ("I've been out here holding you down / Even when you don't see me around" on "All Lessons Unlearned," sung by Samantha Urbani). "F.O.E.," with its wall-punching production, is about checking your ego to make room for understanding, delivered by the fierce and growling Ash B.
The vocals add plenty of personality, but at times they stop short of their full potential. Many of ATØ's lyrics are difficult to hear, either because they're lathered with effects or buried beneath the instrumental. Take "Life Sick." Its washy singing tinges the track with a sense of despair, but the actual lyrics are mostly indecipherable—only after reading an interview did I find out the song dealt with suicidal thoughts. This diminishes the writing's power, which is at odds with the direct and fearless way Ziúr usually delivers a message. My mind goes back to last year's FACT mix, when a sampled speech from the activist Angela Davis, challenging our structural codes, lays it on thick: "Why would women want to become equal to men? Why would black people and Latinos and Arabs want to become equal to white people? Why would the LGBTQ people want to become equal in the context of heteropatriarchy?"
On ATØ, the music's message is subtler and more abstract. Writing about her 2016 EP Deeform, Andrew Ryce said: "Sometimes the only way to make yourself heard among the fray is to be louder." It may have been true back then, but today, one only has to look at Twitter's empty shouting match to realize this approach has run its course. How, then, can positive, progressive ideas take over the world? ATØ might be Ziúr's metaphorical answer. The album is as bold, detailed and eclectic as anything she's done, but it also brings a sense of pleasure with its pop sensibility. In fractured times, this simple kind of connection can be powerful.