The second installment of a two part feature on Faith No More’s return to the spotlight…
by: Douglas Grant
Part Two: The Album ((Part One: The Tour can be found here.))
Not one to typically purchase greatest hits albums, I had reluctantly picked up Faith No More’s 1998 compilation Who Cares a Lot? because it included a second disc full of B-sides, demos, and live recordings. The band’s final studio album was now a year in the past, and news of their breakup had reached its fan base seven months earlier. I was sitting in my car, staring out at the river before me while listening to the second disc’s finale, a track from a live show in Sydney where a tease of the theme from Midnight Cowboy leads right into Burt Bacharach’s “This Guy’s in Love With You.” Mike Patton was playing some soft notes on his melodica when I was hit with a very troubling dose of reality: Oh shit, this is for real. They’re really not coming back.
Rock bands break up and reunite all the time, but looking back at this moment there seemed to be finality to Faith No More’s dismantling. It just hadn’t hit me until right then. And if you were to make the claim that you knew they were going to make a comeback one day then you would be in the minority, for one fact is abundantly clear: the band members themselves had no idea that Sol Invictus would ever be conceived.
I followed Mike Patton’s musical career with interest in the years that followed the breakup. I was an outspoken fan of his 2001 collaboration with Dan the Automator, Jennifer Charles, and Kid Koala, Nathaniel Merriweather Presents….Lovage: Music to Make Love to Your Old Lady By, a moody and sexually suggestive album that plays like a back and forth exchange between Patton and Charles. Another noteworthy project I had enthusiasm for was Tomahawk, the experimental rock group Patton formed with Duane Denison of The Jesus Lizard, John Stainer of Helmet, and Kevin Rutmanis of The Melvins. Hands down, my favorite Patton-led project was 2006’s Peeping Tom, a rock/electronica/trip-hop hybrid that featured the talents of Rahzel, Dan the Automator, Kool Keith, Nora Jones, Massive Attack, Amon Tobin, Rob Swift, and DJ Z-Trip, just to name a few. I was also particularly impressed with Patton’s theatrical score on Derek Cianfrance’s The Place Beyond the Pines, a melancholy and oftentimes menacing composition that lends itself to the mounting tension of the film’s plot.
I would check in with the other members from time to time, even ex-vocalist Chuck Mosley and ex-guitarist Jim Martin, but it wasn’t until the announcement of 2009’s “Second Coming Tour” that I started paying attention to the bandmates as a collective again. But even with the knowledge of a pending reunion tour, it would be some time before any formal announcement of a new album reached our ears. And the journey of Sol Invictus from ambiguous conception to today’s release has been an arduous one.
Apparently bassist Billy Gould never stopped writing music during the interim, and somewhere along the way he invited drummer Mike Bordin to sit in on the song-writing process. As the music started coming to them more rapidly and naturally, it gave them pause, just long enough to reassess what it was they were doing and see where it was all headed. Soon thereafter keyboardist Roddy Bottum – who himself had written a handful of songs – and then eventually Patton, were brought into the fold. It was a precariously vulnerable concept in its infancy, this new album, so much so that they were afraid to even mention the fact that it was indeed an album they were striving toward. It was certainly kept under wraps from those closest to them. After putting out feelers to Jim Martin – which resulted in talks of contracts, leaving a bad taste in their mouths – they called up John Hudson, who’d laid down the guitar on 1997’s Album of the Year and “The Second Coming Tour” from 2009-2012, who was more than happy to come aboard at that time. The next step was to start recording.
Back in 1992 when Angel Dust was released, there was quite a lot of extraneous personnel looking over Faith No More’s shoulder, vocal individuals who were confounded by the fact that the route the band was now taking with their new album was counterproductive to the momentous commercial success following their previous album, The Real Thing. Fast forward twenty-three years and this is no longer the case. Gone are the types of record execs and PR reps who proved to be such hindrances during Faith No More’s time with Slash Records. Sol Invictus was recorded in about as much garage-band style as any band could hope to pull off in 2015, with longtime collaborating producer Matt Wallace providing some post-production mixing. The band now has its own label, Reclamation Records, a sub-label of Ipecac. In short, after thirty plus years of music-making, the band has the freedom to put together an album the way they want to see it done. They are self-sustaining and self-reliant, and in retrospect it would seem that it was the added pressure of unnecessary supplemental rock business types that contributed to Faith No More’s breakup in the first place. Bordin says it best when he states, “We have always had to fight to explain to the record company, to the manager why [a] record should be made the way we want to make it. This is our music and we’ve written it; now we’ve got to tell it to the people who are supposed to help us. I think that really traumatized a lot of guys in our band – you could probably draw your own conclusion. For us to be able to come and say this is the music that we want to make and to have people try to judge that on its own merits without it being colored by other fuckers and other history and other weirdness is exciting for me.”
Now on to Sol Invictus itself:
Whether it’s “We Care a Lot,” “Faster Disco,” “From Out of Nowhere,” “Land of Sunshine,” “Get Out,” or “Collision,” Faith No More has always come out guns blazing with the first track of each album. Not so much with “Sol Invictus,” the album’s opening song and title track. This song trudges along with no sense of urgency; perhaps it’s the band’s cautionary effort to ease back into the spotlight after so much time away. It starts with Patton’s melodic baritone that could easily be mistaken for spoken word, when his voice rises and casts off the bass in the song’s first chorus: “Peace ain’t coming our way/ But the sun keeps burning my face/ Where’s my faith?/ My blasphemy/ Keep singin’, Lord, I’m on my way/ ….Home.” It’s a slow build to the song’s crescendo, which may or may not be underwhelming based on your expectations, but there’s no doubt that in this first song we have a sound that is truly unique to Faith No More, and we can breathe a sigh of relief that this moment has finally arrived: the band is back.
If you were to walk west on San Francisco’s Haight street, you would eventually dead-end at the vast expanse of the beautiful green foliage of Golden Gate Park, and the second to last stop on your left would be one of the coolest record stores still in existence, Amoeba. While perusing the many aisles in this warehouse of vinyl, CDs, and DVDs, you might be caught off guard by an easily recognizable musical act dropping in for a surprise live set, as for a long time now this has been part of Amoeba’s M.O. San Francisco-born Faith No More took full advantage of this dynamic on Black Friday, 2014, by showing up to promote the release of “Motherfucker” on a limited edition 7” vinyl. This promo was accompanied by a surprise live set, which ended with a charged performance of “Superhero,” marking the first time the band played the song live in the states.
“‘Superhero’ actually just started from the sound of the song, where it has these pounding drums and it has like this throbbing kind of pulse, and we just called it the ‘Superhero’ song. Because, a lot of the ways we write we visualize things.” –Billy Gould
“Superhero” is that hard-hitting and nefarious-sounding song that will stand out as Sol Invictus’ defining single. It is the album’s “Epic,” and rightly so. Fast paced and edgy, you might have thought that “Superhero” was tailor-made just for Patton if you didn’t know the song’s origin story. Even Patton’s wordless background wailing sounds like it was a facet of the song’s inception. Each band member here is exemplifying what he does best, getting to show off his talent while playing in perfect harmony with the other four. I find it hard to listen to the song without Patton’s bellowing of, “Leader of men,” getting stuck in my head.
Every Faith No More album comes replete with one of those incoherent songs that doesn’t seem to take itself too seriously, and that song on Sol Invictus is “Sunny Side Up.” Lines like “I’ll be your leprechaun” followed by “Dance the night away like Fred Astaire” are just examples of lyrics that don’t come together cohesively. I’m not complaining though. Sometimes, between the harder tracks, we need to be reminded that we want to have a little bit of fun. Because what comes next is not for the faint of heart.
”Separation Anxiety” speaks to me like a throwback from the Real Thing/Angel Dust era, with pulsating drums and a tight base loop that accentuate the raspy scratch that Patton’s been known for spewing on some of the harder sounding tracks. Short and to the point, this is the type of song that can get you pumped up to where you realize, Yes, this is happening; I’m four songs into a Faith No More album I never thought was going to be made! This realization hits just in time for them to pull the plug on the song.
With “Cone of Shame” we get a few reverberating chords from Hudson, followed by marching band snares from Borden, and then Patton’s crooning, “I’d like to peel the skin off/ This winter day/ I’d like to burn the hair off/ This summer fling.” With this song I’m reminded of the cinematic build-up to the shootout scene in an old Spaghetti Western, until it explodes into the type of thrash reminiscent of Pantera or Biohazard. Patton’s voice reaches an octave here that reminds us that although he is a talent that transcends many genres of music, hard rock and metal will always demand his vocal signature.
“Rise of the Fall” dabbles in pop, reggae, and even a little folk when it’s not coming at you full force with heavy guitar and drum beats. This song has those familiar wordless calls from Patton that sound like his voice is echoing through a tunnel from faraway, and on the whole it puts his entire range of vocals on display. Bottum makes his presence known with subtlety, even though his keys are integral to the progression of the song. The undertones of a harmonica are this song’s signature, giving it a drab and somewhat pessimistic feel.
Maybe it’s ironic that a band that used 2014’s Black Friday to promote the release of their “Motherfucker” single should put out a song that playfully pokes fun at that same depressing holiday of American tradition, but the cynicism-laden “Black Friday” pulls it off nicely. When Patton isn’t bellowing, “Buy It!” repeatedly into the microphone, he’s offering lyrics that make us want to take a look in the mirror: “All the zombies walk on Black Friday/ It’s a riot at the salad bar/ Predatory lenders/ Safari mission is far but you paid for them/ To kill your mom.” Faith No More has occasionally dabbled in guitar work that sounds almost Spanish in origin. You can hear this on 1995’s “King for a Day,” and that same Flamenco style here from Buttum proves to be one of the song’s greatest strengths.
Arresting as it is brief, “Motherfucker” features Roddy Bottum, and not Patton, on the main vocals on Sol Invictus’ first studio recording in seventeen years. The lyrics in this song are as mystifying as any the band has produced, appealing in its ability to get stuck in your head, and fitting in well with their catalog, unique to their repertoire but at the same time conforming to their particular musical style.
When Faith No More reformed in 2009 and started touring, they weren’t working with fresh material, and as a band coming out of retirement this absence of new songs took them a little bit more out of their comfort zone. However, as mentioned earlier, Billy Gould had been songwriting almost clandestinely for years now, and as Roddy Bottum tells it, “’Matador’ was the first idea that Billy brought to the rest of us, and was in a sense, a new beginning.” So during a time where the five members were reluctant to ever utter the word “album,” this new song was the catalyst that allowed the band to explore new territory. “Matador” was first played live at the Estadio Malvinas in Mendoza, Argentina, and it had hardcore fans wondering what this song that had just been rolled out on them was. “When we debuted our new song ‘Matador,’ we just told them it was a cover song,” says Gould, “and they still went crazy.”
Starting off with piano and guitar that almost elicit a Victorian sound, “Matador” quickly morphs into something that is as close to a ballad as this band comes. The penultimate songs on Faith No More albums are usually some of my favorites, and this song is so multi-layered as to make it difficult to pick apart with commentary. For a song that Gould wrote, he shines at some moments, and then pulls back just enough to let Bordin, Patton, and Hudson build wave upon wave together until the song reaches its apex, then – true to the band’s form – quickly takes a bow and then exits stage right. The style of “Matador” certainly pays homage to what’s come before, evoking that sound Faith No More fans have come to love, without being overbearing in its need for callbacks to albums past.
Whereas earlier I insinuated that the title track, “Sol Invictus,” is atypical for a Faith No More opener, “From the Dead” is the contrary for a closing song, befitting a finale from a long awaited album eighteen years in the making. Jokingly referenced by both Gould and Patton as a hippie song, “From the Dead” is a light-hearted, optimistic song that culminates everything that’s led up to this point: the songwriting, the studio recording, the touring. Although I suspect that we’re not to meant to read too much into the lyrics, marking this as the point where the band has returned from the dead, I would imagine that they won’t mind too much if we choose to see it that way.
“We come back to history in present times/ Watch your watch unwind/ We’ve been turning mysteries to nursery rhymes/ Sigils and more signs/ Around you/ Watch your watch unwind/ Back from the dead/ I can see the end/ Welcome home my friend”
When Rolling Stone reviewed Faith No More’s “final album” back in ’97, they had this to say about the band: “Faith No More are floundering around desperately, groping for a sense of identity and direction in a decade that clearly finds them irrelevant.” This was certainly a tumultuous time when modern, mainstream rock-and-roll was about to take a wide turn. And although maybe this summation is a bit harsh, maybe it wasn’t the band’s fault, since they were only trying to be themselves at a time where the music scene didn’t seem to even know what it wanted for itself. Now, all these years later, Christopher R. Weingarten of Rolling Stone says, “Something as obvious as a reunion album should seem downright abominable to a band so dead-set on defying convention; yet here they are, finishing what they started, having a blast and making music that can stand proudly in their catalog. How did Faith No More manage to pull this off without embarrassing themselves?”
To me it seems like Faith No More has gone against the direction of the wind. Whereas many artists and bands seem to be deadlocked in a never-ending cycle of accumulation (press, contracts, management, record deals, appearances, social media presence, outside collaboration, product lines, etc.), Faith No More seems to be shedding the pounds that weighed them down in the 90s, and emerging all the better for it. To be able to step back into the spotlight and still have total creative control over their craft is something I – as someone who has almost no knowledge of the music industry – cannot speak to, but I would venture to guess that it is quite a daunting task.
Sol Invictus is brief, clocking in at just under forty minutes, and at this point there’s no telling whether the band is going to use this new album as the jump-off point to launch their third phase ((I consider the Chuck Mosley years to be phase 1.)), or simply put a bow on a body of work that spans four decades. I’m hopeful for the former, and would be reluctantly okay with the latter. For now though, what’s important is that today they’re back, and still at the top of their game.