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Review: Faith No More Leave Us Asking ‘What Is It?’ on ‘Sol Invictus’

4
SPIN Rating: 4 of 10
Release Date: May 21, 2015
Label: Ipecac / Reclamation

Mike Patton retains his cult for making a 25-year career of Doing Whatever He Wants, less in the Tom Waits model than a more slovenly one: He’s like a hometown school friend whom you can’t believe is still pressing CD-Rs. The crucial difference is obviously that the garage band who used to play at parties didn’t have a 1990 MTV megahit as Faith No More did with “Epic”; the guy whose parents went out of town didn’t commission a 30-piece orchestra to record an all-covers album of Italian pop songs. The breadth of his (lack of) taste is impressive — in Mr. Bungle he’d tackle lounge jazz, carnival calliope, and Zappa-style fusion-metal all in the span of one song. And even before he joined Faith No More in 1989, they were early adopters of hip-hop — 1985’s bizarro fusion “We Care a Lot” wasn’t just ahead of rap-metal’s time, it even beat regular-metal landmarks Master of Puppets and Reign in Blood to existing. And Patton was able and willing to snare Norah Jones for his 2006 one-off album as Peeping Tom. Admired by many, canonized by few, Patton’s usually good for a title or two: take “Jizzlobber” (that one’s from his best album, circa 1992) or “Cone of Shame” (from 2015’s Sol Invictus, keep reading) for two amusements of the English language you’re far more likely to remember than the songs attached to them.

There’s the rub: Faith No More’s first album in 18 years doesn’t especially provoke, offend, entrance, seduce, annoy. No skull-searing riffs, no particularly snaring turns of phrase, certainly no hooks — who do you think they are, Jane’s Addiction? Good musicianship is required for the hairpin turns of genre-into-genre, but there isn’t even good whiplash here. You’re better off with Patton’s four-song EP fronting the Dillinger Escape Plan, a fellow band of art-horror volume terrorists who at least helped push his extreme-circus-metal tendencies off a cliff.

Worse, it may send you on a trip down memory lane to recall what these guys did in the first place: slapping lots of bass and pounding lots of garish synth pads and whining lots of Patton’s bizarre whine on The Real Thing, over a funky crunch that we would come to recognize as the signature of clomping nü-metal down the road, fine-tuned into a zigzagging delight on 1992’s Angel Dust, the band’s token good album that has since been mythologized into a cult classic. Released in 1995, the more aerodynamic King for a Day…Fool for a Lifetime added a few post-punk riffs (“Get Out,” “The Gentle Art of Making Enemies”) to a more streamlined version of the sound that Incubus would soon take to the headlining stadium slot that Faith No More only encircled, but 1997’s rote Album of the Year was released after Bottum had already begun a much more artistically rewarding tenure in Imperial Teen (whose first four albums are all minor masterpieces of LGBTQ-themed chewing-gum pop), and thus began a hiatus that seemingly let the quintet all pursue the music they truly wanted to make without colliding into each other.

And here we are, two decades on with Sol Invictus (“unconquered sun” in Latin) continuing a sound that had no real beginning or end in the first place; Mr. Bungle sampled from David Lynch movies, and were thusly compared to the musical equivalent of those films. Mostly everything Patton touches turns out that way, utilizing a device that one sorely missed Goosebumps blog unfavorably referred to (in reference to R.L. Stine books, of course) as “Let’s just line up crazy things in a row from the beginning to the end.”

But Patton’s already trodden down his every edge to the point of blunt smoothness. Having already excised most of his weirdest impulses in Fantômas, Tomahawk, and dozens of side ventures and collaborations (notably with his fitful jazz counterpart John Zorn), without any interest in returning to the harmonically rich nuances and applicable jokes of Angel Dust, Patton now occupies the worst kind of middle ground. The funniest “hook” here is the threatening command to “Get the motherfucker on the phone,” (from “Motherfucker,” of course, an illustration of their creative downgrade from “Jizzlobber”) and it’s quickly relegated to a backing vocal that Patton lays a much dumber, mock-operatic chorus over. Other bits that stick out of the sludge — the inconsequential intro “I’ll be your leprechaun,” the continued exhortation “Leader of men / Get back in your cage” — struggle for a compelling reason to be.

“It’s it / What is it?” FNM once demanded on their best-known song. We’re supposed to admire the fact that 30 years after their debut album, they haven’t moved an inch closer to definability. But with weirder, funnier, more skillful, even pleasurable bands bearing Faith No More’s influence having cropped up since, the question of “What is it?” comes with a sadder follow-up: “Who is it for?”