It’s the kind of image you’d expect from a space show at the planetarium.
Twinkling stars, fireflies and a pair of brightly colored moons keep watch over a childlike figure kneeling in prayer on a grassy knoll. His (her?) head is tilted upward at the sky in supplication, or fear, or longing, gazing towards…what? It’s a scene that evokes endless possibilities and imagination.
An unassuming cover for a death metal album, but then again, Atheist is no ordinary death metal group. “Unquestionable Presence” was well ahead of its time (1991) for incorporating complex musical theory into the traditional death metal sound, an idea that stemmed from the band members’ fondness for jazz improv (and also, apparently, their fondness for pot). Only Death, Suffocation and perhaps Gorguts could lay claim to this unique combination of technicality and aggression this early in the death metal game.
“This was technical metal, concentrated and distilled to its most crystalline essence,” read the liner notes. And upon hearing it for the first time, it’s hard not to be overwhelmed. I listened to this thing for a solid week after it arrived from Amazon, and I feel that I still haven’t uncovered it all! But the good thing is that even though time signatures shift on a dime, Atheist’s arrangements are still catchy enough to merit engagement (even though they may shift eight or nine times in a four-minute song). For my money, Unquestionable Presence is one of the most engaging and catchy death metal albums ever crafted. Today’s tech-death subgenre owes a big debt to Atheist not only for their sheer skill, but also for the members sheer songwriting.
1. Mother Man
2. Unquestionable Presence
4. Enthralled In Essence
5. The Incarnation’s Dream
6. The Formative Years
8. And the Psychic Saw
It’s clear from the frantic bass intro to “Mother Man” that Roger Paterson is a key driving force behind Atheist. Guitar and drum parts coalesce around it in a barely controlled, wild display. The title track too would have also made an excellent opening cut, with its rising chords indicating that Atheist have reached liftoff. A truly inhuman bass and drum break occurs in “The Formative Years” (one wonders exactly how they pulled it off live). And yet, there are also moments of mellowness, such as the intro to “The Incarnation’s Dream” and the outro of “Mother Man.” There’s also the violently catchy “And the Psychic Saw,” whose rhythms and leads smack of classic thrash and British-style twin guitars.
In the liner notes, frontman Kelly Shaefer shares the story of Atheist, including his remembrance of the van crash that took the life of bassist Roger Paterson while driving home from a tour. He wryly remarks that the preacher at the funeral must have been very confused by all the kids wearing Atheist shirts.This is one of those cases where being put off by a bands name would turn you away from some excellent and forward-thinking music.
Recruiting their friend Tony Choy (who served in a band called Cynic) to play the extremely technical bass parts, Atheist was able to record Unquestionable Presence in the aftermath of that funeral, mostly using the songs already written by Paterson.
“We recorded the record and it became a monster. We were so proud that we managed to get it done, and we felt that Roger would’ve really loved it,” Kelly concludes the album liner notes.
Unquestionable Presence is indeed something different, and as I discovered after only a couple of close listens, it is heavy metal imbued with the same sense of wonder as that beautiful album cover.
Roger Paterson (RIP); Tony Choy
Written by Matt P