Faith No More: Sol Invictus


Three things that are consistent with just about every review of Faith No More’s (FNM) latest output Sol Invictus: It’s been 18 years since 1997’s album Album of the Year; the single Epic was their greatest hit; and the boys in the band were considered zany back in the day.  The rock critics also make the leap from that latter point to suggest that that zaniness eventually created a rap/funk/rock movement that we’re all familiar with today.  (Side note: Anthony Keidis, and the Red Hot Chili Peppers have hotly contested the idea that FNM created this movement.)  Most of the critics also speak of the multitude of projects that the band members have been involved in since the 1997 album, and the fact that the album is named after a Roman Sun god.  What is not stated in any of these reviews is that the very idea of an FNM reunion is emblematic of the dire straits of the music industry as a whole.

Faith-no-More-Sol-Invictus-Cover1This isn’t to say Sol Invictus is a money grab, or at least it doesn’t sound like it was.  Yet, the reunion is evidence of something that members of this band, Pavement, and to varying degrees Soundgarden, Blur, and The Verve, said would never happen.  Or, if they never said “never”, they suggested it would be a cold day in hell before they even considered it.  FNM fans would probably argue that the reunion was spawned by how well the members of the band got along together in their most recent European, reunion tour.  If we conceded that point, and we have to to some degree, we could hit those same fans with the question: why did they get together for that tour in the first place?

In the eighteen years that have followed the dissolution of the FNM, lead singer Mike Patton was often asked about the possibility of them ever getting back together again, and on one occasion he said, and I paraphrase:

Every so often, a guy will approach me with a suitcase full of money and a plan for how the reunion of Faith No More will work.  Maybe if they would offer us two suitcases we could talk.” 

To be fair, Patton never hinted that there was animosity within the band, and he never said never, but he did leave the impression that it would be a cold day in hell.  Those of us that pined for a reunion, and parsed Patton’s words for hope, read him speaking about fond memories, and a recognition that none of what he did after FNM would’ve been possible were it not for FNM.  We read interviews in which he said he learned so much about the craft from those days, and that he was eternally grateful for the opportunity they gave him (my words).  We also read him say that he had learned to put the past behind him, and that he felt that they had all reached a creative peak with one another on their last album, and we read lines that amounted to him hoping that no one would hold it against him, but that he was just not interested.

Unless, perhaps, the industry fell to such a level that no one could make money anymore?  Unless the dire straits of the industry reached a point where wives were approaching the former band members with employment brochures from the local life insurance company?  Hell may not have frozen over, as it did with the Eagles, but there is an apparent point where even the most stubborn artist can no longer laughingly reject that guy with one suitcase full of money.

It may seem like unnecessary cynicism to include such a point, and it may be sad to think that it reached that point for these gifted musicians, but there does come a point where pole dancing around the elephant in the room becomes so tedious that someone’s got to jam a thumb in it.

One, almost universal complaint of the album Sol Invictus, from these rock critics, is that it is not breathtakingly original.  The track Sunny Side Up was singled out for the theme of criticism leveled at the album as an example of how FNM followed their soft-loud-soft formula a little too closely.  Any fans of the lead singer Mike Patton know that the man has not followed a formula in many of his works, and that he has numerous artistic, and largely inaccessible albums in his catalog.  My contention is that once you’ve established your bona fides as a risk-taking, boundary-breaking artist, you can go ahead and make more accessible albums.  There is a trade-off, in other words, in which a true artist shows that he can nimbly cross borders without doing damage to his artistic core.  And while Faith No More may be more accessible, and more formulaic, than many of Patton’s other projects, FNM’s definition of accessible and formulaic is far more creative and artistic than the many other, computer generated artists in the modern day lists of music.

The one track that some of these reviews list as a standout in originality, on the Sol Invictus album is: Matador.  Consider me too well-versed on 80’s hair metal bands if you want, but I consider this song to be heavily influenced by the Warning and Rage for Order-era Queensryche albums.  While this track may be original in the FNM catalog, it is not breathtakingly original as far as I’m concerned.  I do understand that most people don’t have a thirty-year reference base, but one would expect someone from the world of rock critics to pick up on this one.

One decent excuse for wanting the material on Sol Invictus to be more original comes from Ms. Zoe Camp from Pitchfork.com:

There’s nothing necessarily wrong with a band repeating itself. But because Faith No More have such a long history, and their members are responsible for music in a staggering array of styles, it’s hard not to expect more, to wish that they might in some way top themselves, or at least change direction.”

Among the influences that Zoe Camp, and Adam Workman of The National, list for Faith No More (FNM) is Nirvana?  Nirvana?  How could anyone listen to any FNM song and think Nirvana?  FNM actually came out before Nirvana is a point that I would make in this argument.  There’s absolutely nothing wrong with Nirvana, of course, but comparing the two sounds is like comparing Neptune and Venus.  They’re both planets, and their existence is influenced to varying degrees by the Sun, but the comparisons really end there.  I realize that one of the members of FNM was friends with Kurt Cobain, but unless these critics are privy to information I don’t have, I don’t know how anyone could list Nirvana as an influence.  One song Star A.D., was supposedly an homage to Cobain, but lead singer Mike Patton has denied even that.  Perhaps these two reviewers were attempting to frame the era in which these two bands were popular, but other than that I don’t see a Nirvana influence in any FNM songs or albums.

Most FNM fans, aching for new material, were a little disappointed by the November 2014 single MF.  For those unacquainted with the single, the full name of the single is the swear word.  We feared that this was a hint of the material to come.  The song itself is decent, but we feared that FNM was trying too hard to be racy, naughty, and that it was a cover for a lack of creative ingenuity in the manner that a stand up comedian with subpar material tries to tap into the audience’s preference for a tableau that is titillating and exciting through swears.  Not only that, but there was the “act your age” element to it that led some of to believe that these fifty-something rockers were trying too hard to sound young.

When the Superhero track was released, some of us were relieved.  Did it sort of plagiarize other material in FNM’s back catalog?  Or, could it be stated that it was a Patton-influenced Tomahawk-like track?  Whatever the case, it was an excellent re-introduction to the FNM sound.

Some of the reviews focus some of their space on Mike Patton’s lyrics.  In my opinion, as I’ve stated in a number of music reviews, when you isolate most lyrics from the music, they are actually pretty mindless.

Lyrics,” as Patton has said many times, “simply fit the music.  Lyrics, or vocals, at their best, should be used as nothing more than another instrument in a song.  No more, no less.”  (Paraphrase.)

If you are still a Mike Patton fan, at this point, you’re not one that demands that he fulfill some sort of unquenchable thirst for knowledge and philosophy you have in his lyrics.  A fairly decent chunk of his output involves non-verbal, guttural sounds, and some of it is even in a foreign language.  Some of the great lyricists in rock history have stated that they were surprised by the effect their lyrics had on people. The reason for this, we can only guess, is that it was not their intention to be thought-provoking, as much as it was to provide “cool” imagery in word collages made famous by William S. Burroughs, and later used by David Bowie.

Most lyricists are not trying to be philosophers, social commentators, or poets, and they’re not trying to write that college thesis that they never had the chance to write after dropping out of school to pursue the dream of being a musician.  The import given to most rock lyrics occurs in the creative minds of rock critics mining the material for something they can expound upon.  If I had the ear of a rock journalist for one minute this would be my plea, get over your obsession with lyrics, they mean far more to you than anyone else.

Chris Conaton of Pop Matters writes that:

Sol Invictus probably isn’t going to top Angel Dust or The Real Thing on most fans’ lists of favorite Faith No More albums, but it’s a step up from Album of the Year and holds its own with the strong but slightly bloated King for a Day, Fool for a Lifetime record. This is a solid comeback album that succeeds on its own terms. Namely, the whole band sounds engaged and enthusiastic to be working together, and that’s good for everyone that’s ever had a vested interest in Faith No More.”

The very idea that anyone that follows what “most FNM fans” think would consider The Real Thing for their top FNM albums’ list reveals that that person has no idea how most hard-core, longtime FNM fans think.  Most of them don’t even mention The Real Thing on FNM discussion boards.  Perhaps those that are just now learning of FNM, or those only familiar with FM radio’s version of FNM would consider that album for their top two.  For most of us, however, The Real Thing put FNM on the map, and we’ve moved past it to such a degree that unless we’re bit by the retro bug, it is growing dust in our basement.  Most true fans would surely agree that Sol Invictus is not going to cause anyone to forget Angel Dust, however, and the point about King for a Day, Fool for a Lifetime would probably lead to some debate, but Mr. Conaton’s greater point about Sol Invictus appearing to be more of a creative interest for the band, than a purely financial one appears to be a strong one.

Reading through the critical reviews of this album, and all album reviews, this reader gets the sense that most rock critics are less concerned with you actually buying the album, in question, than they are getting you to scroll up to see the writer that wrote the review.  They use huge, lofty words to describe the band’s history, and they use flowery language to describe the intricacies of the music involved on the album.  It is, of course, incumbent on them to prove some mastery of both in any album review, but some critics get so out of hand that it can appear a little self-indulgent at times.  Sol Invictus is a hard rock album that will remind you why you fell in love with the artistic brilliance of Faith No More in the first place, and just about everything that Mike Patton has involved himself in over the past twenty-five years.  The fact that the music therein will never cause the hardcore, longtime fan of FNM to forget Angel Dust; coupled with the fact that the lyrics will never cause you to forget Robert Frost should not deter you from purchasing an album that someone finally approached them with two suitcases (or the one that is now more valuable in the current climate of the music industry) shouldn’t deter you from purchasing what happens to be a damn good, hard rock album.

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