ATHEIST: UNQUESTIONABLE PRESENCE (1991)
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.
This follow-up to Piece Of Time is usually hailed as the «ultimate» Atheist experience, despite (or, perhaps, due to?) being only thirty minutes long, and also despite having been recorded in the wake of the tragic death of the band's bass player Roger Patterson in a touring van accident; those who really care can always check out the demo versions of the songs, which make up for the entire second half of the current CD and feature Patterson's playing. His replacement, Tony Choy, is competent enough to handle his lines, although my brief impression is that, as a result, the album is not as heavy on the bass as its predecessor (at the very least, there aren't quite as many bass solo passages this time).
The reason why Unquestionable Presence gets all the acclaim is that the band moves even farther away from the death metal formula and ever closer to the intricacies of hard bop and free-form jazz. Of course, to fully understand this, you have to replace the metal guitars in your mind with pianos and saxes, and then, perhaps, a distorted vision of Eric Dolphy will fly by in a transcendental haze. If the vision remains inconjurable, just think of it as really, really fucked-up death metal. Well — if death itself is a major fuck-up, why shouldn't death metal be one?
Unfortunately, I still have a hard time telling one song from the other. But at least this time around, there are occasional interludes that go somewhat beyond fifteen seconds of atmospheric synthesizer fiddling. ʽMother Manʼ, for instance, incorporates a few lyrical bits of bass / melodic guitar interplay, sprinkled with chirping birds to remind us of the beauty of nature, so hopelessly spoiled by industrialization, pollution, and detrimental sonic waves generated by death metal guitars that dominate the other parts of the song. ʽAn Incarnation's Dreamʼ starts off with a folksy acoustic passage (this can be seen as a humble tribute to «regular» metal). And most of the other tracks, this way or another, incorporate extra melodic guitar bits, albeit usually short ones, wedged somewhere in the thin cracks of the stop-and-start passages; of the fully incorporated solos, the one that begins at around 2:00 on ʽRetributionʼ is of particular note — if only it were attached to a more memorable riff!...
Lyrically, it's the same old shit all over again ("man prepares to meet his destiny", as Ozzy once sang and since then ninety percent of death metal bands have been doing nothing but commenting on the issue), but vocally, it seems like Shaefer has given up on trying to «growl» and comfortably settled in the «snapping» mode, which is good, since it allows us to take stuff more seriously — especially since its combination of breakneck speed with mind-bending chord changes is itself more in the «post-hardcore» ballpark than in the death metal one. But overall, there is no trying to pretend that any of these songs have different identities: even their structures are generally similar, with a regular alternation of «funky», «signature-mocking», and «speed metal» parts — one could try and build a working model for this shit, if one cared enough.
Hence, another «intellectualized thumbs up» coming on here, but really, writing a useful review for such an album would be a feat of the mind comparable to writing a good review for an Ornette Coleman record, and I have never read one. Where riffs trigger particular emotions or paint particular impressions, talking about them is easy. Where they just produce a «wow, that's, uh, clever» feeling, you need a good musicologist, and most of them are busy dissecting Glenn Gould rather than Atheist anyway.
Check "Unquestionable Presence" (MP3) on Amazon