Saturday, December 11, 2010

Atheist - Unquestionable Presence

1991 Metal Blade

Kelly Shaefer - Vocals, Guitar
Rand Burkey - Guitar
Tony Choy - Bass
Steve Flynn - Drums

Unquestionable Presence is a pop record. That's how it always sounded to me. I came to it as a fifteen-year-old fully prepared to be blown away by its density and excess. Watchtower's "Control and Resistance" was on steady rotation and I had been informed by elder metalheads (back before the days of the internet -- well, before my days on the internet) that these particular Florida upstarts were of similar cut. Dizzying composition, disregard for metal convention and instrumental prowess heavily on display was what I expected.

What I got instead was a collection of airy and beautiful songs. Sure, I guess Atheist sound vaguely angry to the uninitiated but for anyone with a metal education, they're just so catchy they become joyous, in a weird way. At some point when one writes a very beautiful composition, no matter the aesthetic conceit that colors it, it's life-affirming just by being beautiful. "Unquestionable Presence" indeed flew in the face of what death metal music stood for in this way. It's so highly composed and tightly performed that it can't help but make me happy to listen to. I wouldn't admit to this impression back when I was sixteen (I think I pretended this was 'difficult, dark music' for a while, like everybody else) but now, being honest and without fear to express my own opinion, this music is not difficult, it is beautiful in its force. The songs are non-standard, sure, but they're not convoluted as an end in itself, there's no real excess to be found here. If anything the guitars underplay, leaving breathing space for the fluid bass lines that often carry the changes. Yeah, the drums are flashy and choppy like Watchtower and the vestigial remains of Florida-school death metal can be traced in the serrated vocals of Kelly Shaefer, but what defines this music is not the constant pressure and aesthetic inhumanity that typifies death metal but, curiously enough, a certain grace, almost a weightlessness that I would associate with natural, organic beauty.

Yes, calling this music 'pop' is asinine. Perhaps in my imaginary Helmworld, music such as this would deserve the interest of the wider public but back when this material was released it famously was met with a gamut ranging from incomprehension to outright derision and it all ultimately amounted to neglect. Even dedicated metalheads, or perhaps it's more telling to say. *precisely* dedicated metalheads ignored them.

Many latter-day Atheist fanboys opine that the reason for this negative reaction was that what the band had achieved with their second release was ahead of its time. The implication is that this music was too advanced, complicated, cerebral for the metalheads of 1991. However the reality is less flattering. After all, by 1991 it seems most of metal was bent on achieving some sort of egotist self-satisfaction via clinical technicality, and for a brief time it even seemed like this approach would be metal music's gateway into some sort of mainstream acceptance. "Sure they're angry, but listen to how they play!". Every thrash and death metal band under the sun (and they were legion by 1991) were in the process of adding 'tech' to their genre tags. As mentioned, Watchtower scaled dizzying heights by 1989, Psychotic Waltz not far behind. Hell, even Atrocity had put out a crazy-complicated and dissonant debut "Hallucinations" by 1990. Closer to home, brutish, satanic-shocker Slayer-worshipers Deicide put out their second record, "Legion" mere months after "Unquestionable Presence" came out and their effort was much more front-face complicated than anything Atheist had to offer. Even if Deicide's palette remained limited under the dropped beats and added syncopation, death metal fans lapped it up. Why were Atheist shunned? Because Atheist were wimpy. Not complicated, airy. Not savage, contemplative. Not even metal.

Metal music is masculine in its thundering linearity. A riff is a repeated melodic phrase, a left-to-right phrase struck down by a barking typewriter. The drums that punctuate the rhythms of that melody are in tight lock-step to its design. Bass drums pound pummeling sixteenth patterns and hard snare hits dictate the even pace. The head-bobbing (or "head banging" if you prefer) that the steady rock n' roll pulse summons, never before so augmented as it is with the above metal sonics, is also akin to the thrust and ebb of fucking. Metal music, a battering ram is breaking down your door, entering your soul, it is burning your mind. From Judas Priest to Cannibal Corpse, in this respect, little has changed. The speed of the act and the severity of the pendulum motion might have been exaggerated over decades to match the cultural zeitgeist of increasingly desperate times, but the masculine, penetrative sexual intent of it is unchanged.

Most of metal music is macho in this exact respect with its linear staccato melodies and jackhammer beats. The bands that hit the stage and come out striking the hammer feel like metal gods, you better believe it. There's an immense libido-based satisfaction in sending out these brutish sound waves that push heads back and in the silence between the beats magnetize them forward to bang against the stage until metal takes its price. Aficionados of this sort of music are masochists in that they derive a pleasure out of being punished so by their masculine heroes, whom, like any fetishist, they're not ever allowed to touch (or in the implied context, be intimate with on a human being to human being level). Imagine being in a weird outfit that plays like Atheist and having to follow a live act by one of these macho linear death metal bands, what with your empty space and oblique melodies that go every which way. Can't rape anyone with spaghetti.

Harmony is vertical, it has no forward motion. The many notes that make up a complicated chord achieve a nuanced, combinatorial emotion. The listener may have to focus on different aspects of the chord at different times, they have to be pro-active in selecting the direction of the journey. Pauses between harmonic centers also beg for interpretation, like a pointillist painting the gaps need to be filled for the art to make sense. This is like a conversation, yes? Lush vertical spaces full of multi-faceted emotions and then rests in between waiting for the listener's response. This is conversation, it is birth, it is inherently feminine. Metal music is traditionally sparse of harmony, distortion and blunt force render 'fancy chords' nigh-inaudible, for most, useless. Though there are exceptions, metal music is not feminine, it doesn't have something to *discuss* with you, it has something to tell your face as it melts it. The metal listener that wrestles conversation and ambiguity out of punishingly linear metal is doing so at the cost of physical fatigue and some sanity. Metal music is war and who comes out of war unaltered, unscarred?

Many of these more feminine-minded metal bands of the late '80s and early '90s, inspired by Rush and other progressive rock acts attempted to bring more harmony and dynamics into their metal. Atheist's first record is a much more head-on, linear and thrashy affair and it was met with a degree of acceptance. Here on their second album, they (mostly, there's a few ragers still) were deemed too wimpy for fan ears hungering for death metal cruelty. Although their later fans (and also, the band, judging from their interviews) remain convinced that their musical genius was ahead of its time, I suspect the real reason they were shunned was that there's too much ambiguous space between phrases here and too much harmony. Not enough linearity, double-bass and palm-muted chugging. I suspect that if they had arranged all of the songs here to sound more like "The Formative Years", they'd have achieved some success.

But I'm glad they didn't. As is the weird metal pattern, Atheist turn their apparent weakness into strength. All the better that Atheist are a wimpy take on death metal, it's not like the masculine archetype is in short supply. The material here is, once digested and interpreted, rife with symbolic space that matches the tempo of the somewhat oblique and introspective lyric. For the life of me I couldn't tell you exactly what many of these songs are about and I've been listening closely for over a decade now. But I can tell you what the conversations I've had with this music were about. From the first harmonized (of course) fifths of Mother Man that open the album, it's not a race and it's not a beating, it's a dance. Of course metalheads found it embarrassing, do you know any of them that like to dance?

Unquestionable Presence has an overarching theme to it, the gentility with which it states it notwithstanding. The feeling I always get when I listen to this is one of epistemological concern. Epistemology, the study of knowledge itself, it seems to me like Atheist tackle the concept of knowledge (and self-professed knowledge-holders) from different vantages on many of the numbers here. Figures of authority and systems of belief are constantly referenced and in a way the playful music takes a mocking tone. Atheist is indeed Heavy Metal music exactly because the beauty of the music they devised seems a testament to the potency of their individual viewpoint, as hazy as it may often be. In an epistemologically bereft modern world, it falls to art to rise to the magical standard: this is the Word and the Word is True, as long as I believe it to be so.

The song "Brains" especially captures me in this vein

Retrieve all that flows with memory
Obtain all you know with sensories
Approaching every act with contemplation
Attacking every vision with indecision
Conditioning is a routine of minds
Recruiting all the intellect it finds
Insecurity is merely your fear
Of maybe the outside hearing what you hear
Can't let 'em see,
Don't let 'em hear
Projecting like an airplane in flight

I dream of things
That just aren't quite right
A projector shines on the back of my eyes
So my position of perception can rise

So, although nobody much cared to understand Atheist at the time, it seems they picked up a cult following over the years. I would bargain that Atheist brought into metal music much population that wouldn't otherwise bother. Nerds and outcasts, overthinkers and other epistemologically curious beings that weren't into it so much for being allegorically raped by jackhammer beats and linear yells but instead for the polite company and conversation. In their strange way, Atheist achieved a legacy that had little to do with their technical excellence in itself and much more with how technical excellence can vindicate an outside take on metal music. Much of the extreme metal world of the last two decades was shaped by the realization that you can be a bit queer in metal music if you've got the balls for it. And although we've had a lot of queer metal as a result, not much of it has had as much songwriting grace as found here. And perhaps more importantly, the aesthetic open space for the listener to feel the need to contribute to a conversation with the art. There still isn't much out there that achieves what "Unquestionable Presence" does, nothing as sublimely wimpy and ultimately beautiful.


  1. I am pretty new to this album myself but this post summarizes pretty much how the album feels to me. I just haven't listened to it as much to really collect my thoughts and spell it out. I like it, it's beautiful and flows well but it's also lightweight. Pop metal of the highest order???

  2. Looking at bands who were inspired by Atheist, like Meshuggah or the Dillinger Escape Plan, who are becoming more and more accepted by the mainstream, there is certainly a connection.