Picture of Atheist

Piece of Time

Atheist - Piece of Time ©1990 Relapse
1. Piece Of Time
2. Unholy War
3. Room With A View
4. On They Slay
5. Beyond
6. I Deny
7. Why Bother?
8. Life
9. No Truth
10. No Truth (demo version)
11. On They Slay (demo version)
12. Choose Your Death
13. Brain Damage
14. Beyond (demo version)
15. Hell Hath No Mercy
16. On They Slay (demo version)
17. Brain Damage
18. Undefiled Wisdom

This is a review I've put off writing for a couple of days. It isn't because the music is bad – anything but, as Atheist is a very good band, and this is a very good album. But as noted music critic/internet personality Mark Prindle says, "Man, reviewing death metal is HARD!" People can slag off the genre as brainless pounding all they want, but to actually sit down and try to take into account all the various sections of songs, tempo changes, musical interplay, and everything else that goes into this sort of music (when well done), and then, on top of all that, gauge whether or not the band is doing a good job at what they do – and then whether or not you (the reviewer) yourself actually likes what they are doing, proficiency or not – that can be fairly taxing stuff! Sure, it's easy to simply evaluate something on an "I like it" or "I don't like it" scale - but aside from the innate level of kickassness in the genre (is that a word yet? It ought to be), figuring out what it is that actually causes you to like it gets to be complicated business.

And that's with typical, decently written death metal. Atheist, on the other hand, is far from being a typically brutal example of the genre. Hailing from Florida, the group began in its infancy (back in the mid 80s) as a practitioner of unbridled speed and ugliness, but quickly moved beyond that template of sheer sonic aggression as a means of musical expression. Well before "progressive death metal" became another catchphrase for another hair-splitting sect of extreme metal, Atheist were already by their first album marrying complex time signatures and jazz-fusion elements with the yet-to-be-fully-defined sounds of death metal. When Atheist's debut Piece Of Time emerged in the earlier portion of 1990, this was metal like nobody had heard before, extreme or otherwise. And although bands such as Death and Cynic have rightfully come to be seen somewhat as vanguards for the progressive death metal subgenre, it is worth noting that Atheist was recording Piece Of Time right as Death's (great, but comparatively straightforward) Leprosy album was hitting the shelves, and a full five years before Cynic's prog masterpiece Focus would see the light of day - thus putting Atheist well ahead of the curve of some of their most celebrated contemporaries. Unfortunately, the group would be dogged by shoddy distribution and the tragic, untimely death of outstanding bassist (and principal songwriter) Roger Patterson, both of which contributed (amongst other factors) to the band's dissolution in 1993. But before then, the group would send shockwaves through the metal world with their first album, manage to top themselves (and deliver a bonafide classic) with their second, and come through very strong for their third. So while Atheist's legacy was not a prolific one, it was one filled with innovation, incredible technical performance, and extremely intelligent songwriting. But I'm getting ahead of myself here. On to the subject at hand, Atheist's debut album:

From the sounds of crashing waves and the brief, clean (possibly phased), descending notes that introduce the first track on Piece Of Time, one gets a sense that they are venturing into something curious, within reach but not yet entirely known. And indeed, this sense guides the initial moments of this album, and provides a decent enough metaphor for the work as a whole: While certain aspects of the ensuing music are instantly identifiable to anybody who is familiar with extreme metal (the heavy, distorted, stringed instrumentation, the raspy vocals, and aggressive, "unpretty" overall tone), it becomes immediately apparent that whatever common elements of death metal Atheist possess, they certainly put these elements to entirely different uses than that which is typical of the genre. Replacing the out-and-out straight ahead speed or sludgy, ominous build-ups typical to the introductory track of a death metal album, we are instead presented with a remarkably nimble bass line that becomes wrapped around angular, complimentary guitar riffs, all founded upon expert, jazzy drumming which refuses to stay within the same time signature for more than a few bars. Then lead guitarist/vocalist Kelly Shaefer's unusual spoken-shouted growl kicks in, and everything converges into a form of metal instantly recognizable as baring some lineage to death metal, yet not simply death metal as it was then conceived. These days, the kinds of elements I have described in this music hardly seem all that far out: Bands as disparate as Opeth and Between The Buried And Me are taking the fruits of Atheist's labor to highly popular (and profitable) results. But back in 1989, when this album first came out, I'm hard pressed to think of anything that sounded like this. Atheist plain and simply established their own new standard of extremity within the midst of a new genre of music, and it would be a few years before anybody would come close to catching up.

Most of the songs on this album follow the title track's lead of blending musical extremity with technical wizardry. "Unholy War" blurs the line between sheer ferocity and acrobatic musicianship, "Room With A View" and "I Deny" provide two more astounding examples of jazz fusion done as death metal (and demonstrate Atheist's truly remarkable rhythm section put to great use), while songs like "On They Slay" and "Why Bother?" reveal Atheist writing in a mode (relatively speaking) a bit more in line with the straight forward aggression of formative death metal. Because Atheist were still stylistically fresh out of the gate with this album, the band's progressive tendencies were not yet fully gelled in with their aggressive aspects, and as such, certain patches of the music (especially the transitions between songs) lack the cohesion and finesse which the band would fully realize by the time of their second, definitive effort, Unquestionable Presence. Resultantly, this album comes across more as a collection of nine very well-executed songs rather than a singular, unified effort. Nonetheless, Piece Of Time represents a significant early leap forward in the world of challenging, intelligent, extreme music, and deserves a spot in any brainy metal fan's collection.

Note: The Relapse Records reissue of Piece Of Time has added what basically amounts to an entire second album's worth of demo material as bonus tracks. While none of the three demos represented here possess very good sound quality (the earliest and latest demos, "On They Slay" and "Beyond", respectively, sound muddled, overloaded, and contain source tape errors, while the middle "Hell Hath No Mercy" demo is lost under an irritating trebly wash of overloud cymbals), they do provide an interesting glimpse into the evolution of Atheist up the point of Piece Of Time. These are worthwhile inclusions, if not essential to the enjoyment of the main album.

Review by Hunter Brawer

Review date: 12/2009

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Unquestionable Presence

Atheist - Unquestionable Presence ©1991 Relapse
1. Mother Man
2. Unquestionable Presence
3. Retribution
4. Enthralled In Essence
5. An Incarnation's Dream
6. The Formative Years
7. Brains
8. And The Psychic Saw
9. Enthralled In Essence (Pre-Production Demo)
10. The Formative Years (Pre-Production Demo)
11. Unquestionable Presence (Pre-Production Demo)
12. An Incarnation's Dream (Pre-Production Demo)
13. Retribution (Pre-Production Demo/Instrumental)
14. Brains (Pre-Production Demo/Instrumental)
15. Enthralled In Essence (Demo)
16. Mother Man (Drum & Bass Tracks)
17. And The Psychic Saw (Rhythm Tracks)

To say that Atheist was operating under adverse conditions leading up to the recording of Unquestionable Presence would be an understatement. Aside from the typical demands of rigorous practicing and the inevitable head butting which often occurs between several highly talented musicians in the same band, Atheist had, even early on, already been dealt a particularly ugly hand: They toured both locally and abroad to audiences who were often baffled and at times downright indifferent towards their music, and found their debut album Piece Of Time without any sort of solid US distribution for close to a year after its European release.

However, far worse than any of these shortcomings was the tragic loss of bassist Roger Patterson following an auto accident while returning from a US tour. While one could quickly confirm Patterson's status as a stellar musician by listening to any recording he has appeared on, his role in Atheist meant much more than simply possessing great skill. Personally, he was a close friend to everyone in the group, and creatively, he was vital. Unlike most metal bands, in which the bass lines are written around (and often in order to compliment) the guitar parts, Atheist's writing process primarily began with Patterson laying out his bass lines first, with the guitars then being weaved in afterwards to work with the rhythm section. In other words, Atheist's songs began with the bass, and developed further from there. Thus, the untimely passing of Roger Patterson was not only a great personal loss for the group, but also a massive setback with regards to their ability to function as a creative unit as well. Yet despite such painful circumstances, Atheist, with most of the material for their second album already written while Patterson was still in the fold, was nonetheless determined to continue forward in order to document on tape the music they had worked so hard upon. Thus, following the recruitment of highly capable bassist Tony Choy (previously of prog-death masters Cynic, and later of Pestilence), the group headed into the studio to record Unquestionable Presence.

And the results?

Without any fanfare or hokey intro, the band bursts into the first track, "Mother Man", and proceed from that point forward to deliver nothing but insanely smart, astoundingly well-executed fusion death metal for the remaining half an hour or so. Time signatures fly about and turn suddenly at dizzying rates, guitarists Kelly Shaefer and Rand Berkey trade leads and solos over shuffling riffs which are at times melodic, at times dissonant, but more often than not both, and most impressively, Atheist executes all this (and more) seamlessly, and seemingly effortlessly. Whatever rocky moments that occurred in the songwriting of their debut have been polished to an immaculate shine here, and the resulting music proves that cleaning up a band's approach and giving them a brighter overall mix than previously (here, via Scott Burns) does not at all necessarily guarantee a more commercial or less challenging sound. It also proves that being musically progressive need not imply wanky self-indulgence, as there isn't a single one of these songs that reaches the five minute mark, nor does a single part feel unnecessary or out of place. Rather, this is Atheist at their most sonically potent and musically precise, and as such, Unquestionable Presence stands as the group's ultimate statement.

While devoted fans of progressive metal (or just progressive music in general, provided they don't mind harsh vocals) will want to pick up Atheist's entire studio discography (which, at three albums, isn't a terribly difficult task to accomplish), Unquestionable Presence is without a doubt the album to get for those who are either initially curious about the genre, or are looking only to pick up the essential albums it offers. Indeed, it is a genre which has produced some terrifically creative acts, amid a sea of unfortunately indulgent hacks and bum ideas dragged out to bombastic proportions. Nonetheless, Atheist was doing it first, and arguably they did it best. Unquestionable Presence is full of smart, complex music that takes concentration to fully appreciate, but proves to be continually rewarding if given the proper attention it deserves. Don't settle for less.

Note: Like Piece Of Time, the Relapse Records reissue of contains a second album's worth of relevant demos and tracks pertaining to this particular era of the band. The first of these recordings are six pre-production demos from 1990 featuring the late Roger Patterson playing bass on future Unquestionable Presence tracks. Although the sound is a little dry (which should be expected of a pre-production track), the bass drum is very clicky, and the final two tracks in this session are instrumental, these recordings otherwise sound extremely similar to their proper counterparts and are really barely less enjoyable. That said, listening to them in tandem right after hearing the album on which the fully-produced versions appear can feel a bit redundant. Following this batch of songs is an even earlier demo of "Enthralled In Essence". While I've heard metal demos which have sounded much worse than this one, the fact that the tape sounds ever so slightly warped (and thus the sound fluctuates ever so slightly out of proper pitch throughout the song) is enough to make my ears scream at me every time I put it on…which thankfully, is not often. Rounding out this appendix is the drum-and-bass only tracks of "Mother Man" and the rhythm tracks of "And The Psychic Saw". Why Relapse chose to include these incomplete versions of songs, I'm not sure. Was it so that folks could play along at home? Have Atheist karaoke? Focus on how really good certain aspects of the band were while ignoring other really good aspects? Regardless, you probably won't be buying this album for the bonus tracks anyway. Still, it's cool to hear Roger Patterson playing on the tracks he wrote, and kudos to Relapse for helping put together about as definitive a package of Atheist recordings as one is likely to find.

Review by Hunter Brawer

Review date: 01/2010

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Atheist - Elements ©1993 Relapse
1. Green
2. Water
3. Samba Briza
4. Air
5. Displacement
6. Animal
7. Mineral
8. Fire
9. Fractal Point
10. Earth
11. See You Again
12. Elements
13. Unquestionable Presence (live)
14. On They Slay (live)
15. Enthralled In Essence (live)
16. The Formative Years (live)
17. Mother Man (live)
18. Retribution (live)

After writing an album such as Unquestionable Presence, where could an outfit hope to go next? For the members of Atheist, the directions were various, and at the time, irreconcilably different. The pressures surrounding the group during the recording of their sophomore effort ultimately splintered Atheist apart, with drummer Steve Flynn going back to school and guitarist/vocalist Kelly Shaefer focusing more on his other band, Neurotica. Thus, the band quietly faded into oblivion with two solid recordings under their belt, and that was to be the end of the story. That is, until Atheist's record label called, insisting on the third album the band was contractually obligated to deliver. Consequently, Shaefer began contacting musicians he knew in order to reassemble Atheist, ultimately mustering a five-man line up with three luminaries (bassist Tony Choy and guitarist Rand Burkey joining Shaefer), three guitarists, and two newcomers in the mix. With a mere forty days remaining before the band would be in violation of their recording agreement, this new incarnation of Atheist set about to a brief, contractually motivated whirlwind of writing and recording which would ultimately produce their final statement (thus far), Elements.

Given the rushed circumstances this album was created under, and the fact that its initial inspiration was motivated by business, not artistic passion, it would be no small testament to the musicians involved if Elements simply didn't suck. Considering the fact that not only does it not suck, but that it is also Atheist's most challenging and diverse album, the amount of craft involved in sculpting this fly-by-night recording is positively mind blowing.

Noticeably different from the two records which preceded it, yet still comprehensible within the Atheist canon, Elements finds the group taking their jazz-death tendencies into far more progressive territories than ever before, thereby (for the first time in the band's discography) sounding more like jazz fusion influenced by extreme metal, rather than the other way around. Most of these numbers, while as complex as ever (if not more so, thanks to Tony Choy's increasingly complicated rhythms and the addition of Frank Emmi's third guitar in the mix), are also full of clean/phased guitars, are mostly midtempo, and drummer Marcell Dissantos forgoes the metal standard of blaring double bass in favor of measured, yet scattered jazz drumming. I can't honestly say I like this new drummer as much as Steve Flynn, (as Flynn can jazz drum and lay down blaring aggression where appropriate), but Flynn's shoes were no doubt hard to fill, and Dissantos handles the job well. The new risks the band takes with Latin jazz ("Samba Briza") and the several (decidedly gentler) instrumental interludes pay off, and in the case of "See You Again", we have an unprecedented instance of a downright pretty Atheist song. Indeed, the band has traveled a long way since the early snarls of "On They Slay" and "Unholy War".

While I wouldn't recommend this album to a typical extreme metal fan as the first Atheist album to get (as it is, despite being highly creative, probably Atheist at their least "kick ass"), Elements is nonetheless a great album, and the logical conclusion to the band's late 80's/early 90's discography. It also goes to show that while production can be the difference between an album sounding good and sounding bad, nothing can replace or compensate for raw talent, or the lack thereof. It took fifteen years and thirty sound engineers to make Chinese Democracy see the light of day, and the result was lousy electronically influenced pop metal. Atheist had little more than a month and a declining interest in even being a band, and they still managed to produce well-regarded classic that is as excellently written as it is creative. What's Axl Rose's excuse?

Note: The Relapse Records reissue of Elements contains a live-in-studio session tacked on as bonus tracks. The musicians performing on these well recorded, tightly played live songs are actually from the Unquestionable Presence line-up (minus Tony Choy), and its inclusion on this disc rather than the previous one probably stems from the fact that a) there wasn't enough space to fit this session on a single cd with Unquestionable Presence's demos and instrumental tracks, and b) considering how quickly Elements came together, it is likely there simply wasn't much available in the form of pertinent odds-and-ends style extras to include. Nonetheless, these are great, entirely listenable renditions of songs which are properly available elsewhere, and this set also serves as a solid preview of Unquestionable Presence for the odd few who end up acquiring this album before its celebrated predecessor. These live tunes are worthwhile inclusions, in any event.

Review by Hunter Brawer

Review date: 02/2010

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Atheist - Jupiter ©2010 Season of Mist
1. Second to Sun
2. Fictitious Glide
3. Fraudulent Cloth
4. Live and Live Again
5. Faux King Christ
6. Tortoise the Titan
7. When the Beast
8. Third Person

In the seventeen years since Atheist's last album was released, the landscape of metal ebbed and flowed in a several directions throughout the 90s. The blunt-force brutality of the first generation of extreme metal had given way to assorted variations on the form, with technical death metal becoming one of the most practiced styles amongst the second wave of aspiring headbangers and hair-twirlers. But before long, technical death metal itself succumbed to a general sense of artistic stagnation, as the genre was flooded with a sea of unimaginative cookie-cutter practitioners, hawking toss-off Suffocation riffs to the lowest common denominator. Ultimately, the genre was largely rendered irrelevant when black metal became the prevailing trend in the middle of the decade, thereby displacing the popular chunky sound of death metal with a trebly thinness, and often setting the level of musicianship back to relatively primitive levels when compared to the time-change happy stylings which held roost before.

But by the early 2000s, black metal had become incredibly played out as well. What was once considered "grim" now just seemed redundant and goofy, and as it was at the turn of the nineties, yet another generation of young people were now looking for a new, more dynamic sound within heavy music to latch onto. The onset of metalcore and the (stupidly named) math-metal subgenres helped to reintroduce tricky time signatures and ace musicianship back into consciousness of extreme music fans, and upon passing the midpoint of the new millennium's first decade, bands that had risen to prominence through metalcore were now turning towards more diverse, progressive musical directions themselves. Meanwhile, a new batch of insanely technical death metal groups cropped up, seeking, seemingly, to see who could outdo one another by fitting as many notes into a single riff as possible. Subsequently, while bands such as Atheist and Cynic were creative outliers in a metal subgenre which had quickly become played-out over a decade and a half ago, they became (and at the time of this writing, remain) highly influential reference points for some of the most popular acts and trends in current-day extreme metal. Suffice to say, it is difficult to imagine The Faceless or Between The Buried and me existing as currently do if there weren't albums such as Unquestionable Presence and (Cynic's) Focus to lay the groundwork first.

The question remains then, that if hyper-technicality is now so common as to hardly warrant a bat of the eyelashes from most metal fans, how relevant can a band such as Atheist hope to be in 2010? Sure, Unquestionable Presence and Elements might have sounded pretty far out back in the early 90s, but these days, just about every so called "techie" band and their grandmothers (okay, maybe not their grandmothers) can finger tap-dance all over their fretboard, fluidly sweep pick in their sleep, and generally punch in more notes more quickly than ever previously conceived by any non shred-metal musicians. And while Atheist might have put jazz and death metal and salsa rhythms right next to each other on their previous album, Between The Buried And Me has put jazz, Radiohead style simpering-pop, death metal and bluegrass next to each other on their Colors album. That's more genres in a single album than Atheist have ever gotten under their belt! So, do we really need more progressive technical death metal today, even if it happens to come from the band that largely helped to invent prog-tech metal in the first place?

If my tone hasn't made it clear, let me be plain: so-called "progressive", technical death metal has been done into the dirt. And frankly, the more I hear these new bands spewing forth light, piddling, note loaded non-riffs and contrived attempts at genre-hopping (though to be fair, BTBAM does it pretty well), the more appealing the one-chord regurgitation of slam bands like Devourment and the stupid-but-at-least-amusing D-grade death metal of B-grade horror fanatics Mortician becomes.

However, Atheist have always struck me as sounding a little bit smarter than most of the bands they once opened for (or, if Chris Barnes is involved in the headlining band, a lot smarter), and their newest album, Jupiter, serves as further proof that Atheist remains a step ahead of the contemporary extreme metal curve.

Although the recording line-up on Jupiter features only two members of the original Atheist line-up (guitarist/vocalist Kelly Shaefer is reunited with Steve Flynn back behind the drum set), no fan of Atheist's vintage material need be worried: newcomers Chris Baker (guitar) and Jonathan Thompson (guitar and bass) handle their stations more than capably, and everybody sounds absolutely on top of their game here. The dissonantly melodic yet jazzy riffs and note lines are distinctively, unmistakably cut from the same cloth as Atheist's earlier material, and it is fairly obvious from Shaefer and Flynn's performances on this album that between the amount of time the two men have taken off from playing together and playing extreme metal in general, they have lost no aptitude for being able to write convincingly within the art form.

That said, it would be a mistake to dismiss Jupiter as a mere "reunion" album. This is to say that it doesn't simply sound like a retread of the band's supposed glory days. Rather, the band has preserved enough elements of their original sound to make it instantly recognizable as Atheist, while at the same time updating the production and musical approach enough to allow the music to stand on its own as a contemporary document of modern extreme metal. Jupiter could only be called "old school" death metal as far as the fact that the band's writing harkens back to a time when being labeled as "progressive death metal" still meant that the band mostly played metal on their albums – skipping from unrelated genre to unrelated genre was not yet par for course, as it is now. Granted, by today's standards, the music here isn't really all that "progressive" so much as it is highly technical and jazz-infused, but this is hardly a fault – it's a hallmark of the band's style. And as prior efforts show, Atheist had already taken extreme metal in massively progressive directions almost twenty years ago; by this point, the band has absolutely nothing to prove with regards to innovation. Now, Atheist have set themselves apart from the pack yet again by performing a feat which so few of the bands that they have inspired have managed to accomplish. That is, simply, that without frills or adornments, they have put out a modern technical/prog death metal album that is actually interesting and well-written.

And it is on this previous point that Atheist's greatest strength in Jupiter lies. Unlike the plethora of technical bands these days that seem so intent on one-upping each other with respect to technical proficiency, Atheist has instead chosen to write an album that, frankly, is not the most technical album on the market today, and is not going to introduce anyone familiar with the genre to any radical approach to music that they haven't heard before. How could they hope to do so? I hate to sound cynical, but to a large degree, it look as though extreme metal has largely been taken as far as it's going to go, and at this point, rather than a band trying to go out of their way to sound different and almost invariably failing (the newest examples of this trend are any bands currently labeling themselves as "deathcore"), I find it a lot more admirable when a metal band puts the actual songwriting first, and worries about gimmicks and novelties later, if ever. In terms of experimentalism, Jupiter is actually a step back from Elements (no salsa beats to be found here, for better or worse), and is rather somewhere between the mind-bending technicality of Unquestionable Presence and the slightly more straight-forward aggression of Piece Of Time. To be sure, this is still Atheist, and that implies that this music is still as complex and difficult to play as any progressive metal nerd will require in order to enjoy it. However, more important than the skill necessary to perform this music in the first place, is that fact that from start to finish, Jupiter is a remarkably strong effort. The riffs are heavy, creative, and in a rare twist for non Gothenberg-related extreme metal, actually fairly catchy as well. In particular, "Second To Sun", "Fraudulent Cloth", and "Tortoise The Titan" are all quite memorable, and that's to say nothing lesser of the other five remarkably well put together songs on this disc. The clean, modern production renders the music louder and heavier sounding than everything Atheist has done before, and resultantly, songs that were already good in the first place now really blast when they emanate from the speakers.

So, while Atheist can't be credited with starting another revolution in extreme metal with Jupiter, they can (and should) be credited with having written another excellent slab of jazz-prone technical death metal. If you want to hear bluegrass digressions or fifty notes crammed into three seconds of music, you may have to look elsewhere. If you're looking for intelligent, heavy, excellently crafted songs, than look no further. As Atheist has consistently proven with each release, technical ability in of itself only results in transcendent metal when it's met with solid songwriting as a foundation, and it is to this latter aspect that Jupiter is firmly grounded. In short, Jupiter is technical death metal the way it should be played. Younger tech-death hopefuls, please take note.

Review by Hunter Brawer

Review date: 10/2010

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