The Final Act In Smashing Pumpkins’ Rock Opera Is Pretty Decent — At Least As Far As Final Acts In Rock Operas Go


If you can hang with Billy Corgan’s flights of fancy, there are plenty of highlights here.

Say what you like about Billy Corgan–and, let’s be honest, you could say quite a bit– you’ve gotta give the man props for his tireless work ethic and relentless creative energy. Even while putting the finishing touches on Cyr, the Smashing Pumpkins’ 20-song 2020 release, Corgan was already deep into crafting ATUM: A Rock Opera in Three Acts, a 33-song trilogy he described as a sequel to 1995’s Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness and 2000’s Machina/The Machines of God. However tortured Corgan may seem at times, it’s clear that his demons do not manifest in the form of writer’s block.   

Of course, a 33-song album totaling nearly two hours and twenty minutes would be a lot to digest for even the most adoring Pumpkins fans, so Corgan wisely decided to premiere ATUM’s songs one at a time via his weekly podcast, and split the album’s official release into three 11-song segments. Act One was released in November 2022, Act Two in January 2023, and Act Three was finally released last week. Though considerably longer than either of the two previous installments, Act Three is the easiest to take in at first listen; more varied in tone, tempo and atmosphere, Act Three breathes in a way that its densely packed predecessors don’t. It is, however, also the most synth-heavy of the three acts, which means that Pumpkins fans still clinging tightly to the memory of the guitar-heavy onslaughts of 1991’s Gish or 1993’s Siamese Dream may find it disappointing, or even downright infuriating.


But if you can hang with Corgan’s flights of electronic fancy, ATUM: Act Three contains no shortage of highlights. With its synth strings and yacht-rock chords, the lengthy opener “Sojourner” could be a direct descendant of Gary Wright’s spacy mid-seventies keyboard opus The Dream Weaver. “Pacer” goes hard into eighties territory, with glacial synth textures that eventually give way to a Giorgio Moroder-esque dance groove. And the nine-minute epic “Intergalactic” twice builds from a brooding electro pulse into a dramatic rock assault led by the rampaging drums of Jimmy Chamberlin, who sounds as powerful as ever here and on the more straight-ahead rock tracks “In Lieu of Failure,” “Harmageddon” and “Spellbinding”. Best of all are “The Canary Trainer” and “Cenotaph” — the former a goth-tinged mid-tempo track that sounds like a collision between The Cure and The Church, and the latter an intimate acoustic ballad colored by moody synth squiggles.

What these songs mean, and how they all fit into ATUM’s story line — which is essentially an expansive sci-fi metaphor for Corgan’s experiences after reviving the Smashing Pumpkins in 2007 — can take some time to parse. A lyric like “In parried odes to thy mountains/The spirit of us was pungent laughter”(from “Intergalactic”) would be difficult to wrap your mind around even if it weren’t obscured by Corgan’s eccentric enunciation, and the fact that his vocals are often mixed down to point where his voice simply blends into the music like another instrument. But that’s also part of the point here; ATUM is clearly meant to be the kind of record that requires your full attention, and Act Three makes for a nicely trippy conclusion to the whole project, as well as an intriguing listening experience in and of itself.