Wednesday, May 13, 2015

My life with Faith No More, plus "Sol Invictus" (2015)

It occurs to me now that when I wrote my half earnest, half tongue-in-cheek defense of nü metal a few months back, I somehow neglected to mention Faith No More. Which is ridiculous, because Faith No More was not only my favorite band in high school, but their megahit album The Real Thing (1989) was — in its own way,  along with Jane's Addiction's Nothing's Shocking (1988) — nü metal's  foundation.

But I don't really want to go down that road. I'd much rather talk about what FNM meant to me.

I must have been 16 or 17 when I discovered them, and the effect on me was seismic. The only comparable events were the first time I listen to Pink Floyd's "The Wall" (as a preteen) and the first time I read Stephen King (in middle school). It is not an understatement to say that the first time I listened to Angel Dust (1992) was a life-changing/life-defining moment.

I'd only really gotten into the whole 90s heavy music thing a year or so previous. Before that I had been aware of the whole grunge revolution in a distant, sort of abstract way, and I did have some vague notion that the pop-cultural landscape had shifted mightily in the few years since I would go over to my friend's house in the late 80s to watch Poison and Europe and Motley Crüe prance around the screen. After that I basically ignored what was happening in popular music altogether after about 1990, digging deep into a Pink Floyd/Led Zeppelin/Beatles/Jimi Hendrix obsession (peppered here and there with The Clash, David Bowie, and -- oddly enough -- my dad's Jim Croce collection).

All that lasted up until 1994, when my parents finally broke down and got cable. More out of curiosity than anything else, I clicked over to the semi-exotic wonderland of MTV to see what was going on. The first thing that happened was that I was exposed to the double mindfuck of Stone Temple Pilot's "Vasoline" and Soundgarden's "Black Hole Sun" playing back to back. My eyes lit on fire. Green Day's "Basket Case" came next (meh), followed by Nine Inch Nails' "Closer" (what?!?) and Pantera's "This Love" (fuck YES!).

The culture had DEFINITELY changed right under me while I wasn't paying attention. What's more, it felt like it had somehow come around to me and my dark, weirdo sensibilities in a way I couldn't quite wrap my head around. If my memory's correct, I stared at that TV screen for hours, enraptured by a steady cascade of Nirvana ("Heart Shaped Box"), Rollins Band ("Liar"), Alice In Chains ("I Stay Away"), White Zombie ("Welcome to Planet Motherfucker"), Sepultura ("Refuse/Resist"), Ministry ("Just One Fix"), Pearl Jam ("Jeremy"), etc. Sure, there was plenty of Mariah Carey and Boyz II Men in there, too, but between all the pop songs and gangsta rap videos (which I would come to appreciate more years later), it was like David Lynch had come in and taken over the network.

I was hooked. But unfortunately I had some catching up to do and I didn't quite know where to start. So there commenced a, now that I think about it, remarkably short and inconstant parade of faux-identities over the course of less than a year. I graduated out of grunge pretty quickly and dug deep into metal (I'd always loved Metallica, but now there was Pantera, Sepultura, Biohazard, and even Danzig to reckon with). But the chest-thumping machismo and the comic-book lyrics didn't much appeal, so I took a hard right turn into the swampier waters of techno and industrial. That was an identity I desperately craved, but I couldn't bring myself to admit to either my friends or myself that, beyond a few bands (primarily NIN, KMFDM, and Ministry) and a smattering of individual songs (Skinny Puppy's "Worlock," Front 242's "Headhunter"), I just didn't get it.

So I tried punk (aside from The Dead Kennedys, most of that wouldn't stick until later) and then  dipped my toes into the sort of meathead goth thing that was also happening around that time (Type O Negative maybe being the nadir of that, and Tool being its undeniable apex).

It wasn't until I stumbled on Korn toward the end of that busy year (I already talked this in the nü metal post) that I started to find something that felt like it was speaking to me... not the me I was trying to be.

And it was through Korn that I finally found my way to Faith No More.

My best friend Doug was already an advocate (he had The Real Thing), but I remembered the "From Out of Nowhere" video and wasn't really interested until I read an article (probably in Metal Hammer or something) that mentioned how Jonathan Davis's favorite band was Faith No More.  I couldn't quite draw a line in my head between "Epic" and "Faget," but I was intrigued. My impression of FNM at the time was that they were sort of a heavier version of The Red Hot Chili Peppers, or maybe a smarter version of Ugly Kid Joe. Beyond that, I just had no reference point for them.

So when I stumbled on Angel Dust in the cut-out bin at the local record store, I naively thought to myself, "eh, it's five bucks, give it a shot." Little could I sense the earthquake that was about to hit.

I have come to love The Real Thing in its own right, but it was Angel Dust that blew the doors off for me. The demented pop-metal of "Land of Sunshine" was the first thing to come blasting out of my speakers, and it immediately rewired something in my brain. This was followed by the demented post-thrash of "Caffeine," the demented funk of "Midlife Crisis," the pure circus dementia of "RV," and on and on and on. "Demented," of course, being the operative word.

First off, who the fuck was this Mike Patton guy? In an era where rock vocalists were still all trying to be Kurt Cobain, this guy was Pavarotti. But the moment I felt like I had a handle on him as a vocalist, he'd veer way off. On one level he was a classic, full-throated melodic metal singer of the old Geoff Tate school, but then he'd start barking out hip-hop refrains before slipping on an Elvis croon and then blasting into death metal squeals, roars and bellows that would make Chris Barnes proud.

The rest of the band was just as all-over-the place, and the weird alchemy created an album that  on-the-surface should have been pretty accessible but was in reality as disconcertingly eccentric as anything ever released by a major label.

It was the eccentricity that grabbed me and wouldn't let me go. These guys weren't following a trend. They weren't trying to be cool, and they definitely weren't trying to be tough guys. They were chasing the rabbit of their muse right up their own assholes... and somehow managing to catch hold of it. The album was weird, silly, poppy, and at times deeply disturbing.

This felt like me. More than Korn, or NIN, or Pantera, or any of the other bands that had preceeded. It was that odd juxtaposition of goofiness against no-holds-barred aggression, pop against genuine weirdness. Faith No More spoke to that stew inside me like no other band had before them.

The follow-up, 1995's King for a Day...Fool for a Lifetime sharply divided both critics and fans, but I loved it from the start. Along with Floyd (who, as different as they are, had always been similarly devoted to their own bizarro vision), Faith No More became my favorite band. Like Floyd, they were endlessly adventurous, creatively restless, always willing to spin away from the stuff they knew worked in favor of music that would constantly challenge both the fans and themselves. 

The writing was kind of on the wall, though, with 1997's Album of the Year. Some of it ("Stripsearch," "Ashes to Ashes," "Naked in Front of the Computer") was as solid as anything they had done before. But much of the album as a whole felt listless and unfocused. Whereas in the past their constant genre shifting had been exhilarating, on Album it grew wearying. The mojo was off somehow.

I managed to catch them live at the Ogden Theater in Denver in late 1997, and it was a nearly religious experience for me... in no small part because I supposed it would never happen again. And, sure enough, it was only weeks later that the official announcement came. Faith No More were done. The reason given? "Puffy (drummer Mike Bordin) did it."

I offer this rather long preamble for the simple fact that I'm trying to come to terms with my own feelings about Faith No More's current reunion and their first new album in eighteen years, Sol Invictus. It's been more than two decades since I first sunk my teeth into this band as a rather naive and impressionable teenager. Now I'm a pretty jaded, set-in-my-ways dude staring middle age right in its stupid face. It seems almost inevitable that the album would let me down.

But here's the thing — it didn't. The record has been available to stream in full for a couple days now (through a pre-release stream on Soundcloud and with a "first listen" link on NPR), and I've already plowed through it eight or nine times. And I LOVE IT.

What I'm having a hard time figuring out is whether I love it because of simple nostalgia or whether it really is as fantastic as it seems to me right now to be. I saw FNM again at The Wiltern Theater in Los Angeles about a month ago, and I left the theater almost giddy with excitement. It was like they had dumped me right back into the brain of 20-year-old me and simply picked up where they had left off.

Is that what's happening here? Am I just trying to relive or recapture something long gone?

I don't think so.

Sol Invictus starts on a surprisingly soft downbeat, with a bit of melancholy piano from keyboardist Roddy Bottum that quickly gives away to Bordin's martial drum beat. Patton's voice drifts in on top of it, and I settled in for what I thought would be more of that lounge-lizard croon he likes to muck around with from time to time. But for the first time he sounds more like Leonard Cohen to me than Frank Sinatra, and there's a raspy thread of menace that I found a little startling. Faith No More have always been bonkers, but they've never been particularly threatening. 

That's the thing Sol Invictus has that no other FNM-album before quite managed — a genuine undercurrent of barely subdued menace. Even King For a Day... — their heaviest album by quite some distance — feels more jaunty and excitable than truly dark. It's not in any one thing about Sol Invictus, but rather in the sum of everything. These guys aren't fucking around anymore.

Patton and bassist Billy Gould have both stated in interviews that this is their "gothic" album — as inspired by Siouxsie and the Banshees as it is by their more expected punk and metal influences — and on a first listen I could definitely hear it. It's not an obvious thing, and if they hadn't said anything I'm not sure I'd have made that connection at all. The goth and post-punk elements are definitely there, but they've gone through the Faith No More shredder and have come out the other side just as dissassembled as any music genre they've tackled in the past.

The songwriting is uniformly sharp, in some ways minimalist. The genre hopping is there, but the focus is kept pretty tight and the leaps from one style to the next seem less schizophrenic and more calculated than they have in the past. For one thing, the changes tend to happen more within the songs, rather than between them (this was also true of Album of the Year). This is both a positive and a negative in some ways. Part of the charm of the earlier albums was how all over the place and unpredictable they were. A bit of that is lost here, but I don't miss it as much as I would have expected. For one, I'm not a kid anymore. For another, neither are they. It's hard to imagine a bunch of 50-year-olds replicating the madcap, uncontrolled-chaos of Angel Dust and King for a Day, and I think it's to their credit that they don't try.

But this record is as bonkers as their earlier ones, and to me it's bonkers in a way that seems a bit more honest. Whereas in the past FNM consciously strove to be as bizarre as they could within the relative confines of outer edges of the mainstream, now it really sounds as if they just don't give a shit (the fact that they're releasing the album on Patton's Ipecac label probably has something to do with that). The very self-conscious theatrical affect that always characterized them seems largely stripped away. They have exactly nothing to prove to anyone. They made the album they wanted to make. It's a remarkably morose affair in some ways, but it somehow never slips into the turgid (which Album does for me on a few of the later tracks). For maybe the first time, they sound like they're actually enjoying playing together.

Gould produced this album on his own, and it has a much crisper, less expansive sound than I'm accustomed to. In the past, even at their most raucous FNM always pushed toward the epic. Here they yield that in favor of a rawer sound, coupled with an almost surgical precision that makes the chaos inherent in their songwriting more pointed than I would have guessed. In the past, it always felt like they were thrashing out at the world at large. This time, it feels like they're coming after me.

It's no small thing that this is the only FNM album where I find that I like every single song. This isn't true even of Angel Dust, which sports two songs ("Kindergarten" and "A Small Victory") that I actively dislike. On Sol Invictus, even the weaker tracks — "Superhero," "Sunny Side Up" — are still really damn good.

The other edge of that sword, though, is that at its heights it never quite matches the best of either Angel Dust or King for a Day. There isn't a song on Sol Invictus that thrills me like Angel Dust's hip-hop/opera-metal magnum opus "Everything's Ruined" or King for a Day's gloriously lunatic "Cuckoo for Caca."

But there are a couple tracks that come surprisingly close. The throbbing, tightly wound thunder of "Separation Anxiety" is as strong as anything off Album of the Year, and the slow-build metal shrieker "Cone of Shame" is indeed far more powerful than anything that record had to offer. Part of what makes this song so startling is the oddly broken quality of Patton's vocals in the loud parts. He's always had the ability to switch on a dime from a croon to a scream, but here he genuinely sounds like he's been gargling glass in preparation. I'm not sure what the difference is, but it sounds like the shrieks are coming from somewhere deep in the pit of him in a way they never really have before. There's always been an distancing affect to his bellowing that is completely done away with here. When he shrieks "I'd like to peel your skin off so I can see what you really think!" and "you're only happy when you're pissing me off!" you believe that he means what he's saying.

The albums three best tracks are "Motherfucker," "Rise of the Fall" and "Matador" ("Black Friday" is pretty great, too). "Motherfucker" reminds me a lot of "Midlife Crisis," but the repeated "hello motherfucker!" in the chorus makes it way more fun to sing along with in the car. "Rise of the Fall" has some of the wackadoodle carnival energy that typified Patton's other legendary band Mr. Bungle, but it's contained and distilled down into a recognizable, almost pop-inflected song here.

"Matador" is the album's true instant classic, and it's in this penultimate track that the influence of Siouxsie and the Banshees and Joy Division seems most prevalent to me. It starts with a simple, minimalist guitar beneath Patton's ethereal vocals. Eventually, Bottum's piano and Bordin's drums join the swirl, gently adding flourishes and cascades of melody as Patton and guitarist John Hudson (truly coming into his own for the first time on this album) slowly increase the volume and tighten the screws. But it's not until Gould's galloping base crashes in halfway through that the true scope of the song reveals itself. Finally, FNM open the doors and let the air out, shooting for those epic heights they'd hit so many times before. They don't quite make it — not the way they did with "Everything's Ruined," "Land of Sunshine," "Ashes to Ashes," "King for a Day," and so many others.

But, for a bunch of guys who haven't recorded an album together in nearly two decades, they come impressively close.