Monday, May 10, 2010

Thoughts of an Aspiring Music Snob:
Week 58 - Faith No More

Chris is trying to compensate for his lack of musical knowledge by immersing himself in one new artist each week. At the end of the week, he will write up a brief summary of his opinions. You can read about the origin and parameters of this project here.

In the past, when I've been listening to other groups for this project, I've had a lot of praise for those artists with the ability to integrate a large number of diverse influences into their work. I think it takes a lot of skill and creativity to bring in such a wide range of styles, and, generally speaking, the more tricks a group has up their sleeve, the better. I have a certain sort of affinity for those albums that toss in everything but the kitchen sink.

Or so I thought.

Faith No More is not a group that shies away from different genres of music. A lot of their albums feel like they piled as many kinds of styles as they could fit into a blender and turned it on. The result? Rock next to rap next to funk next to blues next to string quartets.

It sounded appealing, but unfortunately the band at their most diverse was also the band I liked least. While I think Faith No More is a solid late-80s hard rock band, things got messy once they got too ambitious. In theory, combining a bunch of different musical ideas onto one album should be my thing; in practice, it was muddled and overpowering.

Maybe as I listen to more music my tastes are changing and I don't have the attention span for a stylistically schizophrenic album that I once did. Or maybe there is such a thing as an album that's too diverse.



WHAT I KNEW BEFORE: Really just one track - that single "Epic" - along with a vague understanding that the band was big around 1990 or so.

MY LISTENING: I listened to The Real Thing (1989) every day this week, as well as listening to Angel Dust (1992) three times and King for a Day…Fool for a Lifetime (1995) twice.


The Real Thing is a very solid album, and the one that I think best shows off the band's talents. Here, there is that blend of styles ("Epic" alone combines hard rock, rap, and a piano coda that wouldn't sound out of place in a cocktail lounge), but the album consistently pushes forward, never pausing to get caught up in it's own tricks.

Aside from that hit single, songs like "The Real Thing" alternate flawlessly between soft and loud, while "The Morning After" builds a sinister crescendo on a funky bass riff. And "From Out of Nowhere" and "Falling to Pieces" are two songs that sum up all that is wonderful about eighties hard rock. But The Real Thing seems more diverse than your standard hard rock album from this decade - it has the boundless energy and the fuck-you-I-do-what-I-want mentality, but tracks like the bluesy "Edge of the World" help keep the album from being easily defined. All the tracks sound similar, but it's hard to pinpoint any sort of musical style that ties them altogether - the album's cohesion comes from good performances, raucous energy, and a bag of tricks that make these songs close enough to cliche to be familiar, but different enough to be enjoyable.

A lot of the credit has to go to Mike Patton's vocal skills. The man can go back and forth from rapping to falsetto power ballads to deeply intoned metal songs. His voice can sound whiny and nasally, but it's so damn flexible that I was soon won over, and it manages to sound powerful even over the epic instrumentals. Without his talents, integrating the myriad of influences on The Real Thing would be that much more difficult, and it's all the more impressive because the band nabbed him at the last minute for this album.

But I think the true heart of Faith No More is the instrumentalists. They can play with reserve and caution when necessary, as in the beginning of "Zombie Eaters," but that only ratchets up the suspense as you await the wave of sound to come knock you off your feet. Jim Martin's guitar lines are soaring enough to compete with Patton's vocals (the guitar solo in the otherwise goofy "Be Aggressive" is awesome), and the band's rhythm section manages to be interesting and often frenetic without being overpowering. "Woodpecker from Mars," a strange instrumental track based on eastern modes, is perhaps the best five-and-a-half minute summary of their skills.


Did you notice that I only really talked about The Real Thing up there? Yeah, the other two albums I listened to didn't really do that much for me. I'm not sure why; whether it's Mike Patton joining as a songwriter for Angel Dust, or Jim Martin's absence from King for a Day or all of the above.

Angel Dust is like The Real Thing on steroids. You liked the funk, rap and blues influences on the last album? Why not throw in some samples from the Kronos Quartet on "Malpractice" and cheerleaders on "Be Aggressive"? Why not spoof country music on "RV"?

Because it's a bloody mess, that's why. Allmusic calls Angel Dust a "bizarro masterpiece." It's bizarre all right, but the stars never align to make this a masterpiece. Instead, it's a bunch of half-baked ideas with no rhyme or reason to the structure. Even the "normal" songs are heavier and angrier, like "Caffeine", but this heaviness just means a lot of Mike Patton screaming; the exuberant energy of The Real Thing has been supplanted by pure power and rage, and, as a result, it's just not as much fun. (Not that The Real Thing was immune to such problems - angry tracks like "Surprise! You're Dead!" also come off as juvenile clunkers).

King for a Day...Fool for a Lifetime shuns the experimental stuff, going for pure guitar-based rock and roll. But the magic is gone, and so is guitarist Jim Martin. Most of the tracks on that album blend together for me, an unmemorable blur of one track with Mike Patton wailing over a plodding guitar riff after another. My feelings on this album are best summed up by Beavis and Butthead:

Beavis: This is Faith No More.
Butthead: Yeah right. Faith No More.
Beavis: No, no, I'm serious...they have a new sound. And a new look.
Butthead: They just look and sound like everything else.
Beavis: I don't know...they kind of rock.
Butthead: Shut up, Beavis.

FUN FACT OF THE WEEK: Mike Patton currently does a lot of voice work. He provided the voices for most of the zombies in Valve's game Left 4 Dead.

FURTHER EXPLORATION WOULD ENTAIL: The band's last album, Album of the Year (1997) as well as the early We Care A Lot (1985) and Introduce Yourself (1987) are out there for me to listen to, as well as Mike Patton's former project - the experimental rock group Mr. Bungle.


BEST SONG YOU HAVEN'T HEARD: "Falling to Pieces"