When Sol Invictus was announced, mainstream reaction to the first Faith No More album in nearly 18 years was, essentially, “Remember the 80s? The ‘Epic’ guys are back!”
It was at once entirely expected, exceedingly dumb and largely reasonable. “Epic” drove The Real Thing to platinum sales in 1989. Follow-up Angel Dust scored gold and a heap of critical praise, but lead single “Midlife Crisis”► didn’t have the crossover success of “Epic.” The album itself was an artistic leap forward, a brilliant 60 minutes of odd angles, trap doors and trick shots that moved deliberately away from commercial appeal. The band’s heretofore final two albums King for a Day … Fool for a Lifetime and Album of the Year didn’t particularly fire in the U.S. beyond the die-hards.
In a swirl of cosmic injustice, Faith No More and the proto-rap-rock of “Epic” were consigned to the pop culture collective unconscious as the face that launched a thousand ships, all of them christened SS Limp Bizkit.
Yet to anyone familiar with those four records, it was the definition of widely held, rock-stupid public opinion, up there with “Jerry Lewis isn’t funny,” or “Avatar deserved to make more than a billion dollars.” Led by musical polymath Mike Patton, whose gleeful anarchist zeal places him somewhere squarely between David Bowie and the Joker, this is a band whose influences are as wide-ranging and disparate as a Girl Talk track filtered through a Dennis Miller monologue.
Drummer Mike Bordin went on to play extensively with Ozzy. Keyboardist Roddy Bottum says he doesn’t know what “metal” means. Bassist Billy Gould is the pragmatic one, who talks dispassionately about the idea of brand. These are not men, it seems, who ever shared much of anything but an adventurer’s spirit and the priapic middle finger that comes with a livelihood earned by playing music loudly. It’s like every effortlessly smart-but-deliberately snotty kid in your high school got together and formed a band.
Now, on May 19, they’re back with their first album in 17 years and 50 weeks, Sol Invictus. And it’s good. Really good.
The decade-plus layoff might be one of the hardest tricks to pull in the game. Portishead stuck the landing after 11 years with Third. The Pixies turned in an admirable effort, but didn’t quite get there with Indie Cindy, 23 years after Trompe le Monde. Bringing up Chinese Democracy at this point would feel like a cheap shot if it weren’t for the fact that if you squint right now, you can see Slash giving a thumbs-up in the background.
So how, with dozens of late-career albums serving as ominous signposts like so many spike-mounted heads outside King’s Landing, did we end up here? Other, we mean, than “after a Game of Thrones binge.” In 2009, after your run-of-the-mill 12-year cooling off period, the band announced their reunion and subsequent tour, mostly in Europe where the band has historically fared better than in the States. Then, after two years of playing the catalog, creative restlessness and a nagging sense of complacency set in. Which is as good a reason as any. Certainly better than, say, “I’ve been promising it for over a decade but accidentally made over a billion dollars selling headphones in the meantime but fuck it, I might as well.”
“At some point it kind of like became apparent it was make some more music or stop,” Bottum told Cuepoint. “We wrote a couple of songs just to be able to play live, just to entertain ourselves.”
Those new live songs led to serious contemplation of putting together a full length. The process started slow, and took years to finalize. Work started around 2011, largely in secret at Gould’s studio. The band was free of any contractual obligations, and could put their full imprimatur on anything they were recording. Gould didn’t even tell his wife there was new material in the works.
“I brought the song ‘Matador’ to people and they liked it,” he said. “It’s one of the things that kind of opened the door. I think what happened [is Bordin] and I went into our rehearsal room. I had all my recording gear there. We mic’ed up the drums and started making some sounds. It was very natural and it sounded good enough that we looked at each other like, ‘We can make an album here.’”
The difference in the landscape between 1997 and now may as well be the difference between 1897 and now. Less, really — no one in Brooklyn was riding a penny-farthing around town during the Clinton administration. Any band recording new material now after a layoff has to deal with an absolute lack of institutional support and a music-buying public that no longer actually buys music; and the very real critical landscape among a certain breed of internet fandom that reacts to anything new with, basically, that James Kochalka Superfuckers drawing: “1. It’s stupid 2. It sucks 3. I hate it.”
After this long, there could be a temptation to give in to nostalgia, to take the safe route and rework old material for eager fans. Even when the band has its downtime, Bottum says, they spend a lot of time talking about the past. This hasn’t been an outfit, though, that has been historically interested in retreading ground. The closest any song in the Faith No More canon ever got to wallowing in nostalgia was maybe The Real Thing’s “Edge of the World.”► It’s an old-school jazzy torch song. About a pedophile. “Kindergarten,”► off Angel Dust, is literally about the futility of living in the past. Proustian, they are not.
But there’s also a gunslinger circling that comes from hammering out new material, particularly for a group with a fraught past. Years lost to the road, 200-date-tours at a time left the band frayed at the end. It’s why the whole project disintegrated in the first place. A wariness combined with the old familiarity to replace the shooting-war hostility that marked the end days of Faith No More 1.0. There was a mellowness and self-awareness this time around. (“It wasn’t necessarily contentious,” Bottum said of doing the other albums. “But we were younger and, I don’t know. I screamed a lot more when I was younger.”)
“The reason it takes so long is getting to the point where you trust each other or respect each other enough where they’re doing something and your first reaction is it’s repellent,” Gould said. “This guy had an idea that repels me. I don’t not like it, I hate it. Then getting through that initial reaction and realizing you have something there I didn’t see, it makes the music better. Trust has so much to do with getting out of your headspace.”
While you never want a band that ended a song with “I’ll just tell ‘em what my daddy told me. You ain’t ever gonna amount to nothin’” to descend into something so boring as maturity, this is also a collection of 50-year-olds picking up where they left off in their early 30s. Gould scoffs at the idea that just because you get older you need to stop rocking your ass off, but this album does feel different than the ones that came before it. There’s still menace, but it’s more contained. The Lynchian juxtapositions of ugliness pushing up against a kind of surface beauty give more benefit of the doubt to the beautiful this time around.
“In terms of density and simplicity, a lot of our records that I look back to from Faith No More are very dense,” Bottum said. “It does sounds to me like a bunch of kids screaming and trying to be heard. The distance between making those records and now gave me sort of the clarity and perspective that maybe simple and space is a lot more resonant than a bombardment of tones at once.”
Which is fair. Invictus has more sonic space than its predecessors. You can hear it falling on the other side of a continuum on which Album of the Year was the midpoint, where the music started to gain breathing room. It’s just that the density went from “somewhere inside the Inception black hole” to, oh, call it “standing on Jupiter’s rocky core.” A tiger with a taste for human flesh don’t change its stripes.
The tours are smaller now, by design. They started in the middle of April in Canada, and are done with the first North American leg before the album comes out. May and June are in Europe, then back to North America for July and early August before wrapping at Rock in Rio in September. They’re going on back on American TV for the first time in years, doing The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon May 13. Fallon was 22 when the last record came out. He was still eight years away from Saturday Night Live when Patton, who may or may not have been wearing Robert Redford’s suit from The Sting stomped around the stage, unhinged, during “Epic.” The last time they made the late-night rounds, it was on NBC-era Conan and MTV-era Jon Stewart. Now, 20 years later, here we are again.
“We’re just kind of discovering this thing,” Gould said. “We don’t have an endgame. It’s working right now, and we’re just going with it. I’d like to discover what happens.”
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