From the Vault

Atheist
Unquestionable Presence (1991)
Metal Blade

Metal, as a genre, is plagued by bigots or otherwise reactionary idiots looking to shock and disgust the general public. It’s no surprise that a good portion of the resulting music, then, sounds like senseless angry noise. Lyrics about decapitation and other forms of unwanted surgery don’t help the image either. The progressive death metal sub-genre tries to avoid these pitfalls, but rarely succeeds.

But Atheist’s Unquestionable Presence is one such exception to the rule. Even the album cover suggests something other than the usual blood and guts affair: It shows a boy praying underneath a star-lit sky.

Florida was the birthplace of the American death metal scene in the 1980s, home to prominent bands like Atheist, Death, Cynic, Morbid Angel, Cannibal Corpse and Obituary. Death may have been the most influential group, but Atheist’s Unquestionable Presence was the most challenging and accomplished album of the era. Unfortunately, the band was forced to cope with a moment of real death while making the record — bassist Roger Patterson died in a road accident. Despite reservations, recording continued with session bassist Tony Choy, and the LP was released as a tribute to Patterson. Unquestionable Presence is defined just as much by its searing emotional intensity as its musical daring.

“Mother Man” opens the album with the bass guitar in the spotlight. Choy lays down the verse’s groove with an athletic slap-and-pop riff that contracts and dilates within the span of a single measure. Flaming tongues of guitar fury lash out from the track’s gurgling bass foundation. Always in flux, the track visits both tracts of scorched-earth metal and placid jazz-fusion oases. Even those looking to decipher lead vocalist Kelly Shaefer’s sinister snarls will be pleasantly surprised — he’s decrying the rape of Mother Earth by the arrogant “Mother Man” who envisions a world where “nature becomes illegal.”

If “Mother Man” is in some ways a condensed version of the album, then “Enthralled in Essence” is the best expression of the album’s ideas. The opening fanfare is a triumphant burst of tremolo twitters that erupts like a geyser. Seconds later, the track is thrust into a lock-step gothic grind where Shaefer pleas: “Relieve me of my duty / As keeper of this body / Just leave me with my mind.” In a moment of musical wit, the palm-muted chug slows to a halt, only to be punctuated by a crystal clear harmonic chord. After another blazing riff cycle, the band breaks into a bouncy swing cadence. Virtuosic guitar solos squeal and squawk, guiding the song to its conclusion.

Progressive outfits often have problems creating distinctive songs — their compositions change the rules of the game so many times that they lose a thematic center. But each cut on Unquestionable Presence has a stylistic element or sonic gestalt that unifies their divergent paths. The title track has a more traditional bottom-end galloping foundation. “Retribution,” on the other hand, is defined by a jazzy expansiveness. On the darker side, closer “And The Psychic Saw” churns out anxious, halting chromatic riffs.

With its seminal album, Atheist proved that heavy music can be intelligent, surprising and even soulful. Jazz sensibilities allowed for songs that were spontaneous in appearance yet cerebral in construction. But most importantly, the band found a way to express a diverse range of emotions through its music while staying totally metal. And because of transformative albums like this, the “metal” ideal can stand for something more interesting than the thrills of drug abuse, devil worship and mosh-pits.

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