Tampa Florida, what started life as an extreme take on thrash metal, by the 1990s, developed into a surprisingly diverse set of artists that swept to international stardom as a result. Morrisound Studios, where the majority of these works were recorded, became something a spiritual home for American death metal, indeed for the international scene as well, with the likes of Sepultura and Napalm death flocking to take advantage of the most in demand producer of the scene, Scott Burns. Sunlight Studios in faraway Sweden produced albums of an unmistakable signature sound; look no further than the difference between At the Gates’ first and second album for an illustration of this. Scott Burns on the other hand, although largely responsible for that muddy, dirgey sound, quickly developed a large portfolio of different styles and atmospheres across a wide range of artists. Two of the most celebrated being Deicide’s ‘Legion’ and Atheist’s ‘Unquestionable Presence’.
Atheist started life as R.A.V.A.G.E, this was a frantic and thrashy death metal outfit in the mid-1980s, before changing their name and introducing progressive elements to their sound. Their debut, ‘Piece of Time’, which dropped in 1990 was a stepping stone between the old and the new styles. Whilst touring this album, and having written most of the material for follow ‘Unquestionable Presence’, bassist Roger Patterson tragically died in an accident involving their tour van. Tony Choy was quickly choppered in for recording sessions for follow ‘Unquestionable Presence’ in 1991, but the loss of this charismatic performer and creative musician was impossible to replace, a true loss to the scene.
So what of the music itself? ‘Unquestionable Presence’ is a hard one to assess. On first listen its half an hour runtime feels like something of a confused tapestry of great riffs stuck together for convenience. But herein lies the distinction between good progressive music and great progressive music. Because on repeated listens, increased familiarity with each riff, one starts to see the connection between each one, much like staring at a magic eye poster. Each riff serves to build into the next, leading to moments of increased tension, perfectly balanced with moments of release and euphoria. And unlike much progressive metal, Atheist rarely broke the four-minute mark to achieve this in each and every track on this album.
Production is crystal clear, whilst guitars are distorted and aggressive, solos fly out of the music with clarity and pomposity. Drums weave their way under this music with precision, with each tom and symbol hitting with as much clarity as the snare, doing justice to a drum track that would be entertaining enough to listen on its own. Indeed, the same could be said for any instrument on this album. So much so that it might as well be an instrumental work. The vocals are a high rasp, with enough humanity left in them to make the lyrics easily discernible. Lyrics deal with the philosophy of self, extra-terrestrials…and the nature of humanity. Whist ambitious in scope, they really only serve as a backdrop for music that demands all of the listeners attention.
If Atheist represent the mature, thoughtful end of death metal, Deicide are pretty much not any of that nonsense. High fidelity musicianship is about the only thing these two albums have in common. Vocalist and bassist Glen Benton had already drummed up controversy for branding an inverted crucifix into his forehead, and declaring his intention to commit suicide at thirty-three, because that’s the age Jesus Christ died (Glen is very much alive in his 50’s now). When Deicide’s second offering ‘Legion’ dropped in 1992 a new precedent for primal aggression within the scene was set; what is done cannot be undone. Again, barely half an hour in length (bring back the days of brevity), this album is a ruthless sonic pummelling, with each track more intense than the last.
The albums that followed ‘Legion’ proved to be something of a simplistic pummelling of brutal death metal, which if you travel back in time from their current works makes ‘Legion’ something of a pleasant surprise. Arguably their most brutal offering, the rhythms, diverse tempo changes and unexpected shifts in time-signature make ‘Legion’ a subtly complex work beneath all the noise. Drums constantly provide fills at unsettling moments, making it difficult for the listener to gain a footing. The bass follows the rhythm guitar attack almost to the letter, but is clearly audible for such brutal, guitar dominated music.
Owing to the album’s title, Glenn Benton’s vocals are specifically designed to sound like a being possessed by many demons. We have a gruff, guttural, growl, punctuated by the occasional mid-range for emphasis, and just occasionally an inhuman screech, giving the illusion of three vocalists at once, with track upon track layered over each other at other times invoking nothing short a of descent into insanity. One death metal’s most memorable performances, never bettered by the man himself.
And what of the guitars? Riffs rely almost solely on rhythm to convey artistic depth. Harmonies, melodies, these are rarely used; even the solos are simple screaming scale runs with little in the way of hummable tune, even by death metal standards. It is not until closer ‘Revocate the Agitator’ that we treated to a riff that dares to tread beyond the atonal. But it is in this complex maze of staccato powerchords that one of death metal’s gifts to contemporary music can be found. Within this riff salad the structure of the music is freed up, and the connection between different powerchords determines where the music is taken next, rather than a predetermined key and a verse/chorus structure. The guitars even determine the rhythm, allowing the drums new creative space beneath the structure. Albums like this bring extreme metal closer to primitive classical music than to dick swinging cabarets such as Motley Crue.
So which of these can be considered the more significant offering from such a fertile scene? Sadly for my money there is simply no contest, for Atheist’s ‘Unquestionable Presence’ is an irreplaceable sparkling gem of the death metal world, one whose contribution to music at large has been criminally under-recognised. I will qualify right now and say that ‘Legion’ remains in any top twenty death metal list I could draw up as a truly remarkable work, but this time around it is up against a work of true distinction. Many missed the point of Atheist’s unique brand of progressive technical death metal, and that is simply that all the prefixes that qualify this as noise of high-fidelity musicianship (right hard to play) can only ever serve a composition. Without a talent for writing music of artistic worth, which for want of a better definition simply has something to say, all the flares and fireworks will only be sizzle, never steak. A second point about ‘Unquestionable Presence’ is how much it manages to say in barely half an hour’s worth of music, the solos are never overindulgent and the songs never overstay their welcome. Indeed, a challenge for a modern artist would be to attempt music of the same runtime, much like the writer who must cut words by the hundred in a sacrifice to brevity, then one is merely left with the components of true quality to create something worth more than the sum of its parts.