the world expects the pose perfectly natural…
A bold transformation from 1989’s The Real Thing, Angel Dust found Faith No More breaking from the funk metal doldrums of the early nineties to stake out their own inimitable style. But this was more than just reinvention, this was the sound of a band forging a strange and perverse sort of art metal. There are so many ideas and moods on this record, so many odd turns and conceptual reverberations. I’ve been listening to this album for over twenty years, and even though I know every corner of every groove, it can still surprise me with some riff or break or theme buried in the mix. It’s deep, grand, dark, dramatic, funny, disgusting – sometimes all in the same song. It’s a movie – no, actually it’s twelve movies with a thirteenth track for the final credit roll. This album is special.
Two years earlier Faith No More had finally found commercial success and even some Grammy nominations with the addition of singer Mike Patton from a little outfit known as Mr Bungle. But the sound and style were still rooted firmly in the funk metal genre popularized by the Chili Peppers. Patton mimicked all the familiar hair twirling Kiedisisms while the band supplied the standard slap bass and thrash sound. The Real Thing is a very good album (and miles better than 1987’s abysmal pre-Patton Introduce Yourself) but I can only listen to that incarnation of the band in limited doses, as Patton’s nasally vocals and the compressed radio ready mix gets grating. But at the time, Faith No More looked like a band with a nice commercial future.
Then things changed: Patton cut off most of his hair and possibly his vocal chords as well, introducing a deeper, more dynamic vocal style that ran the gamut from screams to growls to redneck slang. The band incorporated more keyboards and darker riffs, expanding its palette from basic funk metal to the dynamic, atmospheric art thrash sound that would become its trademark. Of course, album sales fell by the wayside, along with MTV rotation. Not that the songs weren’t there or that the sound was a completely radical departure, but the radio friendly sheen was gone.
Angel Dust was different. And it still is. It might take a few listens to figure everything out – but once it clicks, it really clicks. It’s not just the best Faith No More album, it’s the one of the best albums by anyone, ever.
Angel Dust is a cinematic album: each song feels like a film. This is an idea Patton would later explore explicitly with Fantomas, but here the tracks aren’t so much soundtracks but the films themselves. We have the funky street paranoia of 70’s blaxploitation (“Crack Hitler”), a dark trailer trash comedy (“RV”), an eighties stockbroker-gone-bad morality play (“Everything’s Ruined”), a hospital themed slasher flick (“Malpractice”), and kinky gay porn (“Be Aggressive”). The album even ends with an instrumental denouement for the closing credits.
The opener “Land Of Sunshine” feels like the soundtrack to a Tim Burton directed infomercial. Patton supposedly cribbed the lyrics from fortune cookies, but it sounds like the creepy sort of prevarication of a Scientology advertisement. Backed by swirling circus organs and interspersed with spoken announcements (“Here’s how to order!”), this track sets just a perfectly twisted sort of mood for the rest of the album. “Caffeine” is built on Jim Martin’s octave riffing and Patton’s stream of consciousness lyrics (“Smearing wet concrete and swearing you’ll never be – caught”). It’s one of the strongest tracks on the album, and early performances served as a statement of purpose that this band was looking far beyond the grunge and funk metal herds on MTV rotation. The mix is dense and heavy but dynamic, slowing down at points to let Patton premiere his trademark whispering growl. “Midlife Crisis” was the first single, with its catchy revolving choruses working in contrast with the strange evocations of yuppie psychology. “RV” is a country piano mock up with a narrator sprung from a Coen Brothers film; it’s easy to imagine John Goodman voicing the comic tragedy of the lyrics (“I’m a swinging guy/Throw a belt over the shower curtain rod and swing”). “Smaller and Smaller” sounds like a death march anthem for the Navajo, with its dark riff and atmospheric keyboards matching the desperation of the lyrics. It’s a complete departure from anything the band had ever attempted before, but the more exotic musical leanings hint at the sounds Trey Spruance would introduce on the next album. “Everything’s Ruined” might be my favorite track – there’s that grand sound of piano, keyboard, and riffwork building up in tandem with the narrative of a favorite son gone bust (“And he made us proud, he made us rich/But how were we to know he’s counterfeit?”). Listen to the way the disparate elements merge on the final chorus. “Malpractice” is like Faith No More does Cannibal Corpse, with an appropriately twisted narrator who’s addicted to unnecessary operations. “Kindergarten” explores early life crisis psychology with a foreboding accompaniment. These songs all inhabit these worlds and wring out all the darkness and paranoia therein – and kindergarten really is stressful. “Be Aggressive” is an oddly spirited celebration of fellatio complete with cheerleader backing vocals; no surprise that keyboardist Roddy Bottum had a “hand” in the lyrics. “A Small Victory” incorporates an Eastern sounding melody into a morality tale of a the hollowness of a competitive spirit; again this track includes all sorts of change-ups, riffs, and background effects that are woven into the album as a whole. It was released as a single with a rockabilly cover of the Dead Kennedys’ “Let’s Lynch The Landlord” as a b-side, but didn’t make much of a commercial impact. The world’s loss. “Crack Hitler” is an epic paranoid fantasy with equal parts funk, metal, and fascist march. Is the narrator realizing the depths of his own degeneracy (“In regards to my usage of the drug, it modified my personality”) or perhaps the social intentions of the government’s involvement in the drug epidemic? I’m not sure but it’s damn effective, and sounds like the soundtrack for some forgotten blaxploitation hero (“Here he comes – look out!”). “Jizzlobber” ends the album with a (literal) climax, with the riff heavy, PE-inspired backing track and Patton’s screams of desperation as a convict going mad (“I’m ready to make love to concrete”). I love the pun of the first line (“They will sum it all up in a sentence”) but I really love the whole vibe of the song itself. It is almost unbearably dark and menacing with Martin’s best riffing on the album until the prisoner finally succumbs to the haunting echoes of acceptance (“I am what I’ve done/”I’m sorry”) and then presumably dies. The funeral organ of the fade out leads into the instrumental cover of the Midnight Cowboy theme song, a bizarre choice that works perfectly as a final credit roll.
Angel Dust is really Mike Patton’s show – the band is clearly peaking musically but it is Patton’s bizarre sensibility that imbues the album with its perverse spirit. He inhabits each character and treats each song as a performance – the redneck, the prisoner, the crack addict, etc. And if we can hear these are individual films, they are not the Hollywood big budget sort; these are the movies in the bargain bins of some rundown video store, the bootleg poorly dubbed DVDs, the peculiar documentaries of some strange depravity. It’s a masterpiece.