ATHEIST: PIECE OF TIME (1989)
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.
«Technical death metal» is a subgenre forever trapped in its «sub» aspect. What does one really get by combining breakneck speed / ultraheavy riffage / growling vocals / mock-Satanic lyrics with complex time signatures / unpredictable song structures / elements of free-form jazz and atonality? Instead of attracting a joint herd of metalheads and prog nuts, bridging the gaps between the two, this kind of music is more likely to alienate both — prog nuts will either be terrified of the death metal clichés or tend to laugh them off, while metalheads will find it a bit difficult to move around the mosh pit when that rhythmic pattern is prone to metamorphosing at unpredictable intervals. (Not that there are any genuine limits to the power of moshing for the well-seasoned mosher). Which basically explains why Slayer and Rush are superstars while Atheist, whose idea was to combine the virtues of both, are not.
But not for lack of trying, of course. On the technical side, these guys are fairly hard to criticize. Lead vocalist Kelly Shaefer does not so much «growl» as he «snaps» and «barks», bringing the style a bit closer to hardcore punk than to regular death metal. Guitar work, shared between Kelly and Rand Burkey, is up to the highest standards of the genre (not much of a surprise, though: if you’re into death metal, your technique is either superb or you’re not into death metal); bassist Roger Patterson takes his cues from Chris Squire rather than Cliff Burton, and drummer Steve Flynn is a big lover of polyrhythms, hands and feet flying in every direction in a state of brotherly democracy for each limb.
In addition, Atheist, as prime representatives of the intellectual pride of Florida, are not content with the usual formulaic guts-and-gore lyricism: in interviews, Schaefer remembers the lyrics of early stuff like ʽLifeʼ (“If chainsaws are your fantasy, I’ll cut your body into three”) with horrified embarrassment. It’s not as if they are divine masters of the word — they simply come up with a plain agenda of promoting freedom, individualism, «brainism», and, of course, atheism that is no better or worse than anyone else’s, and, again, this brings them closer to the «hardcore» spirit than the cheese-stained Breath Of The Apocalypse. Of course, in this setting, the regular bowel-cleansing «wwweeeeaaaaarrrgggh!» that Shaefer lets out in between all the preaching do come across as somewhat unnecessary. Maybe they are supposed to represent the protagonist regurgitating all the religious shit crammed in his bowels by a three-thousand year old tradition.
This is as far as I can go with the appraisal, though. Problems start at the usual point of entry: when you realize that it is all but impossible to tell one song from the other. Not even the slow-to-fast ratio of the tempos is any good indication — Atheist are too smart to let you catch them like that, and almost every tune includes transitions from slow to fast and back again, the «fast» usually in the more faithful speed metal pattern, the «slower» going heavy on the polyrhythms and syncopation and jazzy jumping (but always with the same metallic guitar tones).
The riffs are way too speedy and too complex anyway to allow individual notes and chords to trace an emotional pattern; the vocals create atmosphere, but not hooks; and the finger-flashing metal solos are the least interesting element of the lot — they sound like any other speed metal solo ever played. The overall sound is highly unusual, for sure, but this unusualness comes at the expense of completely forsaking individuality of the tracks, apart from the fact that one or two of them open with «moody» little bits of doom-laden electronic effects. Not that this is so much different for many of the serious jazz albums from which Shaefer and the boys drew parts of their inspiration — but at least the best of those albums always knew how to introduce a memorable theme before veering off into a world of shapeless improvisation. These boys riff and riff like there was no tomorrow on their anti-religious propaganda pieces, yet they might just as well have left out the in-between song breaks. One continuous forty-minute long «progressive death metal symphony» would seem more honest in this context.
As it is, I can only talk about the overall sound of this thing: technically mind-blowing, emotionally rousing if you like to headbang to weird time signatures, and, most importantly, hard to laugh off, except over those brief intervals where Shaefer is getting electrocuted by his own vomit all over the microphone. But «hard to laugh off» does not automatically mean «spiritually overwhelming». On their next album, the band would move a little further away from the strict regulations of the genre; Piece Of Time is, however, very rigid in its metal guitar-metal bass-monster drums-growler pipes formula. I give it an «intellectual» thumbs up for recognizing the effort to lift the genre into another dimension, but I am not going to jump for joy just because somebody, somehow, out of nowhere, invented «metal-fusion» one day — I’d like to see a good reason for that invention, which Piece Of Time does not really offer.