Faith No More Sol Invictus

[Reclamation/Ipecac; 2015]

Styles: alternative rock, metal, reunion music
Others: Tomahawk, System of a Down, Mr Bungle, Ennio Morricone

Faith No More were as self-destructive as the characters their songs portrayed, at least when it came to their career trajectory. Owning the charts in 1989 with The Real Thing album and its genre-defining “Epic” single, they willfully renounced commercial success with their fourth album, Angel Dust. The 1992 effort sacrificed the crowd-pleasing funk-metal of their pubescence for damaged alternative metal that wore as many emotional scars as musical sub-genres. From there, the Californians only burrowed deeper into their own depravity, releasing two more albums of self-loathing perversity and lewd eclecticism, as though emboldened by the dip in their popularity, and as if convinced that they didn’t deserve the spotlight. Eventually, after seemingly doing almost everything they could within their guitar-synth aesthetic to turn off former converts, they drank their last cup of sorrow in 1998, only to receive the epitaph of being named VH1’s 67th greatest one-hit wonder of all time.

Why they twisted hard to the left at the peak of their fame probably has a simple answer relating to matters of artistic direction, as well as to Mike Patton’s admission into the band just before sessions for The Real Thing, but it’s nonetheless interesting to massage an explanation out of their music. From the masochism of “Be Aggressive” through to the addictive personalities of “Cuckoo for Caca” and the repentant abusers of “Jizzlobber,” the anger and bile of their protagonists was usually turned inward. They castigated themselves for their failings and confessed their sins often within the same outburst, the guilt and self-hatred in Patton’s lyrics implying that he and his cohorts were the types to sabotage their own lives and careers as punishment for everything they believed they’d done wrong. Even if all this self-flagellation was simply a part of the personae they adopted for the recording studio and for the stage, it’s still more probable that it stemmed from people who weren’t entirely comfortable with fame than from people who were. They didn’t relish the attention and the applause, possibly because their psyches had somehow persuaded them that they weren’t worthy of it. Their wayward metal was a reflection of this, and so, in the end, they reached the point of no return.

Yet now, Sol Invictus witnesses their attempt to abandon their once contrary ways. It exhibits all the idiopathic symptoms of a latter-day Faith No More album, of course, but this time the eccentricity, the spleen, the prurience, and the impulsivity are bound to the desire for a more self-affirming existence. This is initially hard to glean form the maudlin strains of the title track’s piano, yet it’s not long after Roddy Bottum’s plangent re-introduction of the band and Mike Bordin’s martial solemnity that Patton’s chorus hits us with the line, “Peace ain’t coming our way/ But the Sun keeps burning my face.” Here, the “Sun” in question is the Sol Invictus, which translates into English as “Unvanquished Sun,” and which appears to stand for the essential vitality and goodness that resides latent within all of us but is far too often suppressed by necessity, hardship, or trauma.

More decisively, this Sun reappears throughout the album as a premonitory figure for our better or true selves, as a distant source of heat that just might thaw the ice surrounding us all. For example, the Asian-tinged metalworking of “Superhero” features a Patton who whoops, “The sunrise is here to save us now” amidst the kind of incongruously optimistic bridge that Faith No More have been throwing into their uglier numbers since “Malpractice.” This is followed by “Sunny Side Up,” a track ostensibly about breakfast but more likely about turning a new, more positive page in our lives. Its jazzy verses throw up a roll-call of such sanguine promises from “the Sun” as “I’ll be your leprechaun, Shamrock or lucky charm,” while the final chorus rallies us with the imperative, “Come on ride my wave/ Ride it all the way.” Earlier outings of this chorus boast a rapturous vocal turn from Patton, who defies probability to use his signature contortions for a disarmingly catchy hook, and who galvanizes the rushing of Jon Hudson’s strums to transform the song into an upbeat promise of health and happiness.

With this symbolic foundation, Sol Invictus verges close to being a concept album of sorts about renaissance and resurgence, particularly of the individual who’d been long suppressed by his own negativity and destructiveness (who, to quote from one of Faith No More’s best songs, “dreams about a cloudy sky”). The birth pangs of this rejuvenation can be heard in the gothic aggression of “Separation Anxiety,” where the squeals of guitar bully a shrieking Patton into asking, “How can I separate/ From this anxiety?” The answer to his question comes with the spaghetti-western homage of “Cone of Shame” and with the mouth-organ’d sleepiness of “Rise of the Fall,” both of which sound decidedly more resolute and determined by comparison. In both, quiet-loud dynamics emphasize Patton’s vows to stand up and tear away everything that had previously hindered his development as an individual. That said, the range of his singing provides no indication that he’s been hindered in his development as a vocalist, what with it swinging from the explosive shouts of “BUY IT!” on “Black Friday” to the neo-operatics of “Matador.”

And it’s with the six-minute “Matador” that Sol Invictus’s tale of revival meets its consummation. Quite tellingly, it was the first new song Faith No More wrote after reforming in 2009, making its debut in 2011 in Argentina during their Second Coming Tour. It’s because of this connection to the band’s re-uniting that, even if the prog-ish intensification from ghoulish ballad to histrionic bugling equates to one of the album’s strongest moments, its impact is dampened somewhat. Rather than being focused on the notion of personal regeneration and rebirth in general, its context of emergence indicates that its concerns reside primarily with the group’s reformation. This trivializes its content and the album’s content by extension, insofar as the croons of “We will rise from the killing floor/ Like a matador” are reduced to the suggestion that all you need to pick yourself up from your issues and injuries is to reform your old band. Maybe this reading is counteracted by the tracks that precede it and seem to universalize its message, but it’s nevertheless hard to shake the uneasy suspicion that the album is little more than the celebration of its own existence.

This is unfortunate, because this new album from Faith No More is worth celebrating. It doesn’t offer any major stylistic advance over Album of the Year, admittedly, but its 10 songs are constructed with an incomparable craft and creativity that few bands in rock and metal can reproduce. They’re equally memorable and macabre, expressing the diverse palette for which Patton and Co. are notorious, and displaying a masterful ear for dynamics. More importantly, the underlying positivity of the record, the unwillingness of the band to wallow in their own filth and damn themselves for their problems, is a step in a much saner direction. Even though its applicability to the rest of us may be diluted by the possibility that it’s centered solely on Faith No More’s reappearance in the pop world, it’s also possible that the reason why we’re so drawn to band reunions in the first place is that they all offer us hope of performing similar resuscitations on ourselves. They convince or delude us into thinking that we can awake “From this living sleep,” and Faith No More’s is no exception.

“May the dead live.”

Links: Faith No More - Reclamation/Ipecac

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