Since we’re all adults, I’ll spare you the long intro. You know why you’re here. Be warned that this reviewer’s opinions are colored by 23 years of Faith No More fandom, as well as witnessing the band’s recent performance at Chicago’s Concord Hall, which included several Sol Invictus tracks and provided some valuable insight.
Sol Invictus kicks off with foreboding piano work by Roddy Bottum, followed by some gorgeous Mike Patton crooning. After that, those two things happen again, and then…the song ends. At 2.5 minutes, “Sol invictus” is the aborted first half of a good Faith No More song. What the hell?
Track two, “Superhero,” bears the most resemblance to the band we know and love. Mike Bordin beats the shit out of his drums, Roddy Bottum tickles the ivories with class, and guitarist Jon Hudson does his best Jim Martin impression. The FNM of yesteryear would’ve demoted it to b-side status at best, but it’s one of the few instances on Invictus where the band gets their blood up.
“Rise Of The Fall” contains a brief moment of tribal pounding reminiscent of Chuck Mosely-era FNM, while still making room for the accordion and finger-snapping required of any Patton-related album. A lot of this record is drenched in the ’70s mafioso/Danger 5 shtick that has become Patton’s thing over the years, occasionally feeling like one of his many solo projects. On the bright side, Bottum has updated his sound by trading the ’80s-style synths for more vintage instruments, particularly grand piano.
“Black Friday” pits jangly 60’s-style acoustic guitar against rock riffs, creating a dynamic that works well despite containing possibly the worst lyrics of Patton’s career. “Separation Anxiety” is built on a grinding, circular riff unlike anything in the FNM back catalog, building tension until it explodes, at which point Hudson actually wakes up and plays some goddamn guitar. And if the Chicago gig is any indication, “Motherfucker” has replaced “Epic” as the most insipidly catchy sing along in the set list.
The real issue is that Faith No More circa 2015 suffers from a lack of energy, both heaviness and songwriting-wise. Mike Bordin is a secret weapon of fearsome power, yet the material rarely gives him a chance to cut loose. Patton can still sing anything — ANYTHING! — but spends a lot of time doing spoken word, making funny noises, and generally sounding bored. And don’t get me started on Jon Hudson, possibly the most passive and uninteresting guitarist to have ever lived. He spends a good chunk of Invictus doing literally nothing, and the contributions he does make are hardly exceptional. The fact that FNM chose him to replace iconic guitarists like Martin and Trey Spruance suggests that the guitar is simply not important to them.
The album’s muted production is also somewhat to blame, placing Patton and Bottum up front while drums and guitars sit waaaay in the back. Even Billy Gould’s signature bass grind has been sanded down to a more subtle tone. These songs sounded absolutely massive onstage in Chicago, and it’s a shame that the band couldn’t capture that energy on record.
Members of FNM have spoken proudly of making this album in-house, without the aid of record labels, producers, or even recording engineers. Sadly, those unsavory characters are sometimes necessary. Back in the day, there’d be no way in hell Sol Invictus would be released without someone, at some level, exerting quality control to keep this project focused. And that doesn’t necessarily mean “commercial” — after all, the major label machine helped spawn Angel Dust as well as the entire Mr. Bungle discography. But there are times where an outside opinion can be valuable, and I suspect this is one of them.
In the absence of focused songwriting and an assertive guitar presence, Sol Invictus plays like a mix tape of FNM‘s more aimless novelties, the “RV”‘s and “Edge Of The World”s, with all the replay value you’d expect from that. A lot of Album Of The Year left me hanging in similar fashion. And while Faith No More on a bad day is still better than most bands at their absolute best, it’s certainly a letdown after all these years.
Written By: Al Kikuras
A new Faith No More album is like getting in a New York City cab in SoHo, saying “Take me to Chinatown,” and getting a Crazy Taxi-style ride hitting Harlem, Hell’s Kitchen, and every curb in between. A journey taking us where they want us to go, rather than where we want them to. Because of this, they’ve managed to fragment their following with each release, shedding fans like so many dead skin cells (I even have a friend that doesn’t like anything past The Real Thing). Trolls still cry out for the return of Jim Martin, despite the fact that he hated Angel Dust, his last album with the band and what many feel is their greatest achievement. In the wake of the monster guitar work of Trey Spruance on King For A Day…, Jon Hudson’s more restrained style on Album of the Year has been bemoaned by many, and there are even some idiots who think there’s no Faith No More without Chuck Mosley. Despite the ease with which they could’ve made a “Part 2” of any of their albums, Faith No More were never a band to rest on their laurels, instead always challenging not just themselves, but the listeners. After a 17-year hiatus, can they again segregate and cull the masses?
At a tidy 40 minutes, the shortest album of their post-Mosley career, Sol Invictus still offers ample opportunity for both the cynics and faithful to nitpick. The opening title track is a punch to the face in its subtlety. Those fool enough to expect them to come out swinging with another “Get Out,” “Collision,” or “Land Of Sunshine” take it right on the chin as Patton croons over a somber march with tense interplay between the guitars and bass. On “Superhero,” those craving the familiar are sated with what may be the most straight forward track, akin to “Digging A Grave,” but still its own beast with a middle eastern flair. Then, on “Sunny Side Up,” things turn radically into near-pop territory, assuring one of the least pugilistic songs may have the heaviest impact. Is it funk? Soul? It doesn’t matter.
In this time of record labels disappearing, artists becoming the clown and the album becoming a lost art, Faith No More had the balls to release a single that flew in the faces of commercialism with “Motherfucker.” While, musically, it’s one of the closest stylistically to what fans might expect (leaning more towards a rap/rock feel), the title alone assures zero radio play. Releasing a song where all but the chorus is voiced by the keyboard player rather than one of the most renowned voices in music is also a bold choice that, had they still been on a major label rather than their own imprint, would surely have the suits shitting their Tommy Johns. “Cone Of Shame” ranks up there with “Jizz Lobber” as one of their darkest and heaviest numbers. Patton runs the gamut of his vocal range here, from soft baritone to cinematic narration, and ultimately some of the most emotive and frightening screaming ever to escape from his maw. While he’s done a lot of interesting stuff since Album of the Year, it’s on Sol Invictus where the man finally sounds at home again.
Mike Bordin’s drumming stands out for not standing out. The man is one of the tastiest drummers in all of rock, never overplaying, choosing parts that fit the music perfectly, and is most effective here on the sprawling, cinematic “Matador.” Jon Hudson, likewise, lays back more often than not. Much like Larry LaLonde, he is adept at finding a distinct voice among the others. Take the sparse plucking during the samba-flavored verses of “Rise of the Fall” for example. One of the many strengths of Faith No More has always been their penchant for playing off one another, yet knowing when to activate interlock and form Voltron. Produced by Gould, the sound is dense and dark even when the music is not, giving the happiest sounding moments, like “From the Dead,” an unsettling, underlying sense of dread.
As Fred Gwynne said in Pet Sematary, “Sometimes dead is better.” With Faith No More, such is not the case. Some artists manage to open a window into a world to which one cannot be indifferent. Jackson Pollock, Franz Kafka, GG Allin, Salman Rushdie, et al. – these are the musicians, poets, authors, and film makers that polarize the world. From the beautiful to the grotesque, great art should challenge us, as does Sol Invictus. Is it an amazing album? That depends on who you are, and that is one of the most amazing things about it.