How do you even begin to describe Faith No More?
Bringing the band up in conversation is likely to draw a lot of confused looks. Many people will never have heard of them. This might lead you to think they aren’t that popular, but trying to secure tickets for one of their live shows tells a different story. Recent shows have been selling out in minutes if not seconds. While they might not be household names, those that are familiar with Faith No More treat them as icons.
Should you wish to describe the group to a friend, you’ll probably bring up some of their more popular singles. Songs like ‘We Care a Lot’, ‘Epic’ or their cover of ‘Easy’ by the Commodores. But these hits don’t even begin to give a proper impression of the band’s work. No, sooner or later you will have to answer the dreaded question: “what kind of music do they make?”
If you come up with a simple answer to that one, let me know.
Faith No More officially announced their breakup in 1998, with each of its members pursuing other musical projects. These new ventures helped to fill the void for the group’s substantial fan base, but over the decade that followed one point became perfectly clear: there’s no band quite like Faith No More.
In 2009, the group announced that they were getting back together to tour. Their line-up was the same as it had been for their most recent offering, Album of the Year. Fans were overjoyed, and many hoped that a new record would soon follow. Six years later, it has finally happened.
Sol Invictus is Faith No More’s seventh studio album. And the highest praise that I can give this album is that it deserves to stand alongside the other six. This is not a record which is overshadowed by its predecessors.
Several rock groups from the 80s and 90s have released comeback albums in recent years. Perhaps none of them have done so with the same gusto as Faith No More. Unlike many of their contemporaries, Patton & company did not set out to replicate their most commercially successful record (1989’s The Real Thing) or even their most critically successful record (the 1992 masterpiece Angel Dust). They’ve never been ones to stick to a formula even within a single album, let alone across their entire career.
With Sol Invictus they simply made the music they wanted to make. And their fans won’t be disappointed with the results.
This latest offering subverts expectations from the start. Faith No More’s previous records have typically started at full throttle; hurling the listener right into the centre of things, like an action movie beginning half way through a gun fight. Here, the band takes a new approach. The short, moody ‘Sol Invictus’ instead whets the appetite for the rest of the album. After an 18 year wait, the band makes us wait just a little longer before kicking into high gear.
It does just that with ‘Superhero’. This fast-paced offering puts old fans back on familiar ground. Thematically and musically, this song would not have seemed out of place on their 1995 album King for a Day, Fool for a Lifetime. The combination of Hudson’s throbbing guitar hooks, Bottum’s eerie keys and Patton’s patented snarl proves to all Faith No More fans that this is the same band they grew to love.
The light-hearted ‘Sunny Side Up’ takes the tempo down a notch, switching genres to a sort of funk/pop hybrid. The chorus is incredibly infectious and will remain firmly lodged in your brain for days after first listen.
Bill Gould’s churning bass riffs propel us through ‘Separation Anxiety’, a track which has rapidly become a favourite among the FNM faithful. This isn’t surprising, as the song is perhaps the closest on the album to matching the density and unbridled force of some of Angel Dust‘s heaviest tracks. This could be thought of as a spiritual successor to the likes of ‘Malpractice’ or ‘Smaller and Smaller’.
I was initially struck by the excellent sound quality of ‘Cone of Shame’ before realising that I had been comparing it to the live version floating around on Youtube, recorded on some guy’s phone. I had been listening to it on repeat for weeks; the song’s raw power is addictive. This track is one of the most experimental tracks on the album and easily one of the stand outs. It builds gradually towards an apex before exploding with intensity.
‘Rise of the Fall’ is a showcase for Patton’s incredible range of vocal styles. He switches back and forth between octaves effortlessly, and his haunting melodies transform to terrifying screams almost within the blink of an eye.
‘Black Friday’ is an unashamedly fun number, light and yet up-tempo. Patton almost narrates over the verses, much like in the eccentric Angel Dust track ‘RV’. That is until things burst to life in the chorus.
Then comes ‘Motherfucker’. It was the public’s first taste of this new album, and the reactions to the song were decidedly mixed. Apparently some of those who were underwhelmed by the first listen chose not to give the band the benefit of the doubt. If they had gone back for those vital second and third listens they would likely have been roaring the chorus aloud in unison with Patton before too long.
‘Matador’ is another ambitious effort. If this was a band that could be described as having a ‘comfort zone’ maybe you could say they step outside of it here. They are rewarded for doing so, with one of the most hypnotic songs they have ever recorded, the eerie melodies building to a triumphant crescendo.
Finally, the deliberately obvious ‘From the Dead’ is Faith No More at their irreverent best, and it’s hard not to imagine Patton singing it with a shit-eating grin on his face. It finishes things off on a lighter, more theatrical note, with Patton crooning over acoustic guitar, while a chorus of backing singers warble joyously behind him.
There was always going to be a lot of pressure on Faith No More to deliver something special after all these years, but they did not appear to notice. Instead they just quietly got on with creating one of their best albums to date.
Reviews of Sol Invictus have been primarily positive so far. Some have called it the band’s best album since Angel Dust, and it’s an opinion with plenty of merit. This is shorter than previous albums, clocking in at under 40 minutes and with only 10 songs. But as a result, this is a particularly tight album. It doesn’t have that one song that you’ll be inclined to skip on repeat listens. Every song is a vital ingredient, and the album would be weaker without any of one of them.
Of course, as with any group returning from a lengthy hiatus, there will be fans who claim that their new stuff sucks compared to what came before. So often the weight of the fans’ expectations get the better of them. But if people had any expectations of this album ahead of time, they were naive fools. Faith No More have constantly subverted all expectations over the course of a career now spanning four decades.
If fans thought age would make Faith No More less inclined to take risks, then they haven’t been paying attention to the other projects these guys have been involved in. They’re still growing as musicians. Still experimenting. Faith No More aren’t just running a victory lap with this album; they’re still racing.
Who knows though, even the album’s most stubborn detractors may come around eventually. Faith No More’s material always rewards repeated listens and often they’re too far ahead of the rest of us for us to truly appreciate the quality of their material. Album of the Year received largely negative reviews upon its release in 1997, and it was years later before critics started to realise how badly they had misjudged it.
It turns out that there is a correct answer as to what kind of music Faith No More make, and it’s “whatever the hell they want”. And I wouldn’t have it any other way.
18 years after their last record, Faith No More haven’t just released a great album; they’ve released somebody’s favourite album. Not bad for a bunch of aging rockers.
Hopefully we don’t have to wait quite so long for the next one.
RATING (out of 100): 93, “Outstanding”
Steve Hanley is an editor and co-founder of NovaCritic.com.