Wednesday, May 18, 2016

I can see the parade

Sol Invictus, the 7th studio album by Faith No More (5th with Mike Patton on vocals), was released on May 18th/19th 2015. I was so excited that I couldn't wait for my preorder copy to show up - I printed out a coupon that Ipecac Recordings had stuck up on FaceBook and drove to the store to get the album after realizing that it wasn't in my mailbox at home. Then I didn't even want to wait to listen to it - I peeled the plastic off in my truck and drove around until "From the Dead" had finished, then started the album again.

My initial response was disappointment - every member of Faith No More is tremendously talented and ground-breaking in his own way. And this album wasn't - it had none of the experimentation of Angel Dust, lacked the steel-and-spit core of Album of the Year, was missing the sneers and flourishes of The Real Thing, and was too homogeneous to recall the delightful genre-dabbling of King For a Day. It didn't feel like my favorite band.

It still doesn't, really.

Oh, there are elements. Some songs have that fucked-up carnival sound that's so common to Mike Patton's catalogue. There's an operatic quality to the piano that you can tell Roddy Bottum was trying to introduce to the music back in the early 80s and is present in nearly every FNM song between now and then. Billy Gould is showing off his impressive chops with virtuoso speed and consistency, but none of the sloppy, sticky funk that hooked me in the first place. Puffy Bordin has put together some nice fills without being flashy (and while being HARD as FUCK). Jon Hudson is, as ever, competent and (perhaps unfortunately) unassuming, not making a mess of anything and occasionally pulling off a very neat technical trick. There are very good things in this album, and to be honest it was still my favorite record last year. It's an incredibly decent forty minutes of rock. It isn't the moody, fussy, face-shredding, irreverent Faith No More we last heard from nearly two decades ago, but the album certainly isn't an embarrassment after all that time. Faith No More may not be the same as they were in the 90s, but only in the sense that they're now elder statesmen and have better things to think about than being naked in front of the computer. Sol Invictus is tidy, it's got a cohesive sound and it all tells basically the same story - a pretty significant departure from the manic genre-hopping FNM is known for. But there are plenty of parts of the album that sound like the old days.

Separation Anxiety and Cone of Shame are brilliant, heavy, perplexing songs that recall hints of tracks like Jizzlobber and Collision; the hilarity and drama of Sunny Side Up mimics the funniest moments of Land of Sunshine and Be Aggressive; The cold country sobriety and warm nostalgia of From the Dead make it seem like a descendant of Take This Bottle.

Sol Invictus is 100% for sure worth a couple of listens, and is fun to return to once in a while, but it's not the kind of album you can't leave behind. Where much of FNM's discography is unforgettable and arresting Sol Invictus is ignorable but contemplative. There's a lot to be examined but you might not care enough to start that examination in the first place.

For an exhaustive song-by-song look at the album, please see the remainder of this incredibly long post. If you don't want to do it then I'll just get to the point: I'd score this album at 80-83 out of 100. At the very least it's a reunion album that doesn't fall victim to rehashing old material and certainly is much better than anyone had any right to expect.

"Sol Invictus"
Sounds like: Lusty monks singing a repentant dirge from a cave slowly filling with saltwater.
Feels like: The opening dance of a tragic ballet.
WTF?: The piano-driven melody and distorted vocals (sometimes half-whispered, sometimes sounding like they're bubbling up from underwater) give an unearthly feel to this track while the half-time tattoo makes it feel like a dirge. I get a strong "Black Hole Sun" vibe off this song, but instead of the intensity of youthful emotion  you hear in BHS, Sol Invictus is a song by a band stained with age and stooped to study the twisting path that brought them to this juncture.
Best Lyric: "Peace ain't coming our way, but the sun keeps burning my face, where's my faith? My blasphemy?"
Score: 7.8/10

Sounds like: An engine running really well on a bright morning drive.
Feels like: Winning a pissing match against Superman.
WTF?: This is a high-energy song with a call-and-response feeling similar to "Be Aggressive" - it's the meanest track on the album, with lines snarled and drawled and spit into the microphone. That does not, however, make it the hardest song on the album; it's pretty hard though.
Best Lyric: "Leader of men get back in your cage."
Score: 7.6/10

"Sunny Side Up"
Sounds like: A face-melting cereal commercial.
Feels like: A real FNM Song - only song on the album with any funk but still has lots of great piano and howling metal-screaming.
WTF?: One of the great things about Faith No More is that you're never really sure what they're on about. Is this song about fucking? Literal breakfast? Aging? Fuck if I know, and fuck if I care: it's fun to listen to, silly, theatrical, but somehow wistful. It's odd for a song this full of growling and pounding guitars to sound so sweet and open but somehow it manages.
Best Lyric: "Sunny side up, such a lovely way to start the day; sunny side up, dance the night away like Fred Astaire"
Score: 8.9/10

"Separation Anxiety"
Sounds like: Auditory assault.
Feels like: Getting put in a blender where all the blades are Billy Gould's angry black bass.
WTF?: This is four minutes of relentless rythym on the part of Gould, Hudson, and Bordin with lovely decorative/melodic touches from Patton and Bottum.The lilting vocals and solemn keys are a brilliant contrast to the heavy music and abrupt vocal shifts. The song is paranoid and snarling and simpering and writhing; I actually feel it's a pretty good representation of anxiety (and thus it manages to calm me down when I'm panicking).
Best Lyric: "I can't let you go 'cause you're a part of me, not apart from me."
Score: 9.5/10

"Cone of Shame"
Sounds like: Being relentlessly followed down an abandoned midway by a screaming axe-murderer.
Feels like: Angry masturbation
WTF?: The first time I heart this song it confused the fuck out of me - is it a story song, is it a torch song, is it a revenge song? What story is it telling and who is it telling that story to? Then I realized I didn't particularly care - it's got an incredible spooky sound (including samples of Patton's growling dog) and some wonderfully angry lyrics and I love it; it mourns, it howls, it snarls, it hisses, and it pounds its way into your brain where it takes up residence and doesn't ever want to leave.
Best Lyric: "I'm only happy when I'm pissing you off."
Score: 9.8/10

"Rise of the Fall"
Sounds like: A drunk Frenchman became a carnival barker who was then kidnapped by sailors and is singing on deck.
Feels like: A confusing scene in an early Tim Burton film
WTF?: ...That's unfortunate. I'm pretty sure it's the lyrics that kill this for me instead of the music but the lyrics kill it hard - they just don't seem to scan ideally and they're a little too... Expected? Predictable? something. It's nonsense but it isn't good nonsense, which bugs me because I KNOW FNM can produce good nonsense.
Best Lyric: The lyrics suck in this, but the piano and accordion are BITCHIN'.
Score: 6.7/10

"Black Friday"
Sounds like: A mariachi band joined forces with a thrash metal band to write a product jingle.
Feels like: Mike Patton howling all of the sins of conspicuous consumerism out of the world.
WTF?: This is like getting a dildo from your aunt for your 16th birthday. Maybe you wanted it but were surprised to get it and don't quite know what to do with it. You like it, kinda, but it doesn't really do anything and takes a lot of effort on your part to be fun. But for reals, this is a fascinating song that goes to all sorts of odd places - it's got a few moments that are legitimately surprising and entertaining, but the song as a whole is a very strange inclusion.
Best Lyric: "Buy me a future regret, a shrink-wrapped fantasy that I'll want to forget."
Score: 6.8/10

Sounds like: Misanthropy
Feels like: We've probably let everyone down with this whole civilization thing.
WTF?: So it looks like a band that first had a hit with a politically-motivated sneer song is still doing the same thing thirty years later and it still works for them. Motherfucker is full of loathing for the mess we've made of the world and is a subtle demand to fix it.
Best Lyric: All of them are good but the prize of this song goes to the soaring guitar bridge and stuttered "Get-the-mot-ther-fuck-er-onthephone" just past the midpoint. That's a solid fucking moment.
Score: 8.9/10

Sounds like: A melodramatic 80s hair-metal ballad with more distortion.
Feels like: Somebody got a bit too serious with the rock-opera concept.
WTF?: Look it's not hard for lyrics to ruin a song for me and "we will rise from the killing floor, like the matador" both doesn't scan and is too expected; the whole thing just makes me very uncomfortable and there's not much else going on for this song other than a cool ominous bell sound, the rest of it is pretty generic and makes me sad.
Best Lyric: "We will rise from the killing floor," and "let the dead live" - gotta give some credit for snarky self-awareness.
Score: 5.8/10

"From the Dead"
Sounds like: A really grumpy Beatles song, actually - lots of harmonizing and acoustic guitar.
Feels like: A hug from someone you thought you'd never see again.
WTF?: Of all the things that feel like shoutouts to fans in the course of the album this song is the biggest nod. It has musical merit (but it really sounds nothing like Faith No More), sure, but the song isn't about the song, it's about the fact that you got the chance to hear the song.
Best Lyric: "I can see the parade, welcome home my friend, we come back to history in present times, watch your watch unwind" followed by unremitting sobbing because oh my god it's been 18 years and you just weren't expecting this and I'm sorry but I'm just so happy I'm going to need a minute.
Score: 8.1/10

Subtotal: 79.9/100
Bonus Points: 
Reunion album that isn't pure shit +5
No inane solos or self-indulgent jamming (tight shit all the way through) +2
Somewhat cautious, could be more daring -1
Frustrating simplicity of lyrics & bass, unusual for the band -3

Grand Total: 82.9/100
Final Score: B-

I wish I could rate this album higher, it's FNM and I love them and I want everything every member of the band does to be perfect for all time. But that doesn't always happen. Sol Invictus isn't a bad album by any stretch of the imagination, but it isn't in the same league as any of the post-Mosely albums (it's probably fair to put this offering on a level with Introduce Yourself). I'm reviewing Sol Invictus a year late specifically because it took me a while to warm up to it; once I had I wanted to listen to it to the exclusion of all other music for about two months, and now nine months later I can happily listen to the whole thing a couple of times and then forget about it (as a whole) for months. There are a few good songs that stand out on their own and have worked their way into my heavy rotation playlist (mostly "Separation Anxiety" and "Cone of Shame, though "Sunny Side Up" is my weekday alarm) but overall Sol Invictus is a decent, listenable, replayable, and largely forgettable album. I want so hard to love it, I hope that other people out there like it, I hope they love it, I hope the same songs that speak to me speak to them and more, but "pretty okay, good to hear once in a while" is the best that I think this album will ever be for me.

     - Alli

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