I usually give a brief history of a band when I do a write-up of their latest effort. In this case, it seems like that should be unnecessary since I’m talking about one of the single most important bands of the modern era. Upon releasing their original singer and picking up Mr. Bungle’s resident pain-in-the-ass-genius Mike Patton for the task, they set about forging the sound of alternative metal. Then redefining it. Then redefining it again. There is a good chance most people think of them as the “you want it all but you can’t have it song” band and that, if you’ll take a second to look it up in the bible, is a crying god-damned shame. Their albums Angel Dust and King For a Day, Fool For a Lifetime rank among rock’s finest modern offerings, within their native decade of the nineties or without. Diverse, challenging, aggressive, artful, aggressively artful and always developing in new ways to the listener, these albums (production aside) remain astoundingly fresh and relevant.
Now, for most bands, there is a certain level of internal tension between members; for many groups this push/pull is a source of creative energy and can facilitate invention and re-invention. In the case of Faith No More however, the tension was more of a nuclear chain reaction, resulting in spectacular output, but also inevitable destruction. Multiple lineup changes and rumors of breakups ended with what was, for almost two decades, their final album, 1997’s Album of the Year. It was pretty good, but it did feel like the work of a tired outfit, devoid of the mania and brilliance of so much of their previous output. And so, fans of FNM were left with what they believed to be a great band’s final legacy: a few great albums, a couple of decent albums.
The ensuing eighteen years have never suffered for lack of rumors of reunion tours or new records. Patton’s frenzied involvement with as strange and wide an array of projects as one could dream up as well as his continued fronting of the (also legendary) Mr. Bungle showed an abundance of creative energy still to be tapped. The real questions were A) if it would ever be possible to assemble enough of a former lineup to count as a reunion, B) if all outstanding beefs between members could be squashed for long enough to actually generate anything new and C) if anyone involved actually wanted to do that. Well, to pretty much everyone’s surprise, the answers to that particular quiz were A) yes, although original guitarist Jim Martin would be replaced by Album of the Year’s Jon Hudson, B)I guess so and C) apparently. So here’s Sol Invictus, and it’s pretty good.
Opening with the dark, mellow appetizer that lends the LP its title, it isn’t until track two, “Superhero”, that the trepidatious fan will really breathe a sigh of relief. It is vintage Faith No More. Mike Patton’s voice hasn’t lost a single berserk step in the passage of years as he barks, shrieks, moans and croons his way over slashing metal guitars, Roddy Bottum’s instantly recognizable keyboards and a melodic sing along chorus that is far catchier than it seems on first listen. If it were the only good song on Sol Invictus, “Superhero” is good enough that I would feel like I at least got one excellent new FNM song out of it and be more or less satisfied with that. Thankfully, there are several. “Separation Anxiety” evokes the growling, jittery psychology of “Midlife Crisis”. “Cone of Shame” begins with a sparse, almost western atmosphere and builds to wild, explosive highs. Late album offering “Matador” is a long, odd track, creepy guitars and plinking piano slowly building themselves into a mighty tower of a song that once again shows just how damn good this band can be when they’re fully engaged. Have I mentioned that Patton’s vocals are still totally incredible? They are.
All that said, Sol Invictus isn’t on par with the band’s best work, but then, nobody expected it would be. While there aren’t any truly bad songs on the album, there are enough middle-of-the-road efforts to put this release on par with Album of the Year rather than King For a Day. For some reason, they chose to release the odd-but-funny-do-I-like-this-I-don’t-think-so-wait-maybe-I-do head-scratcher “Motherfucker” as the first single from the new record, seemingly to scare away the “who cares I bet they suck now anyway” crowd. If that was the intention, it may have been an effective one. I know it just about worked on me. However, “Motherfucker” is not the album’s weakest point. That would be “From the Dead”, a light, upbeat major key affair with which they bafflingly chose to end the whole thing. I would’ve preferred they excluded the track altogether as perhaps a B-side, but ending the record with it sort of paints the totality of the effort as somewhat unconvincing. A decent sum with some great parts.
I know there will be many complainers about this album. That’s just music, especially with bands as revered and storied as Faith No More. But those people are missing the point. Here’s an album that wasn’t ever supposed to exist. “Band that imploded almost twenty years ago decides to give it another go” isn’t generally a recipe for success. And yet, here we are. Somehow, this is a pretty good album. Best of all, Sol Invictus is a pretty good Faith No More album, which, in the annals of pretty good albums are some of my absolute favorites. It doesn’t sound like a band trying to be themselves again but rather a band that, despite all the strife and distance and years could never in collaboration be anything but what they are: an exceptional, special group of musicians.