Sol Invictus is a little bit of everything that makes Faith No More one of the greatest and most influential hard rock bands to come along in the last three decades. And that’s what’s frustrating about it, that it’s just a little bit.
We weren’t going to pass judgment on this one quickly. Hell, we’re still forming our opinions on King For A Day, Fool For A Lifetime, still weighing Angel Dust against Album Of The Year, years later. You can’t really take any shortcuts when judging the work of a band like Faith No More. It’s hard to compare their albums to even their other albums, let alone other band’s albums.
I’ve thoroughly challenged my own critical reaction leading up to this late review. I’ve doubted it, re-checked it, spent more time with the album, collected my thoughts, threw it all away, started over. I’ve already suggested that it’s lacking something, but there’s more to that comment than casual rating. It’s far from the bottom line, and it isn’t just knee-jerk fanboy insatiableness. Specifically, it’s a call on quantity of things rather than quality of things. And in fact, it’s only barely a negative critique in this case.
Sol Invictus uses that frustration to its advantage, more effectively than any other recent album in its broad genre that I can think of. Outside of perhaps Superhero, all of the songs sneak attack from the sides like velociraptors, usually well into a song, past the point where you feel like you’ve got the general idea. And aside from a couple of exceptions, when those parts do finally creep out unexpectedly, lunging directly into the canon of unstoppable headbang-able Faith No More hooks, they’re gone as quick as they came. In and out. Never lingering. Endlessly echoing in your head.
The second pre-chorus of Sunny Side Up is one. The song has a groove, a quirky metaphor. Fried eggs? Okay… Then there’s a tantalizing breakdown, that seems to always last one more measure than you recall, once you know what’s coming. And then it’s two lines. Just two: Rainbows will bend for me, curvy. Honey bees will sting for me, stinging. It doesn’t look like much on paper, if you haven’t heard the way Mike Patton sings it. Like the smooth crooning on Album Of The Year. It’s better than perfect, for just a few seconds. Just those two lines, and then right back into the chorus. I don’t mean to dismiss the rest of the song, but that hook is so good, so brief, so frustrating in the moment, but so memorable long after the record has stopped spinning.
Separation Anxiety opens a trap door leading into the bridge, with a subtle little chord change that feels like the careening mine car you’re in just dropped down to an even more dangerous level after hitting a tiny pebble on the track. Following that is Cone Of Shame, which gets you by misdirecting. For a full two minutes, it recalls tracks RV and Take This Bottle, sauntering around some musical equivalent of an Arizona trailer park, a little too hot and maybe a little too drunk. Then Bordin’s drums come crashing in through near-silence as Patton screams: I’D LIKE TO PEEL YOUR SKIN OFF! So I can see what you really think, or if there’s anything under that cone of shame… And what makes Cone Of Shame one of a handful of tracks that stand out as a little more mercifully satisfying than the rest is that attack doesn’t relent through the rest of the song. That verbal assault continues, like something from Helmet’s Aftertaste album with an extra pair of pistons.
Matador is another one that gives it all up. It also takes a two-minute long scenic route, before moving in to hit you with a combo, when a second bridge follows the first chorus, rolling in over a concentrated, potent breakdown of just the drums and bassline. And it isn’t just a tease. The six-minute song follows through, getting louder and heavier through the end, establishing it unquestionably as one of the album’s strongest contributions to the band’s legacy, at least in the eyes or ears of longtime fans.
Superhero was the hardest song to pin down for me, despite it seeming at first to be the most straightforward and familiar song on Sol Invictus, even within the context of the album, regardless of the fact that the song was released as a single ahead of it. It recycles a lot of classic Faith No More tropes: Patton’s hissing sneer, alternating with Patton’s open-throated ooooooh-ing. Roddy’s piano tone. Something about it feels so topical though. In the middle of this passing fad of blockbuster superhero movies, it could conceivably have been written for the soundtrack of one of the more self-aware entries. Ant-Man maybe. I can’t think of any other Faith No More songs that went after a zeitgeist, intentionally or otherwise, and I’ve always felt that was one way to ensure that songs would always be timeless. If you hear Superhero, it sounds like Faith No More operating at full capacity. All the right pieces are there. But being one of the least surprising, least frustrating tracks on Sol Invictus, some days, for me, actually puts it at a disadvantage. Part of me wants Sol Invictus to challenge my taste as much as Angel Dust did when I first heard it. RV? Be Aggressive? Jizzlobber? Granted, I was 13, but those songs were like nothing I had heard before, even from Faith No More. They changed things. I don’t demand reinvention, but I certainly don’t need training wheels for a new Faith No More record. Black Friday, in contrast, is just as accessible and radio-friendly as Superhero, but you’ve got Roddy on acoustic guitar (at least, that’s how they do it live, with Patton holding a tambourine!), and it’s more enjoyable for following no pre-established prototype.
Sol Invictus is over entirely too quick, given all of the meandering that it does (albeit effectively) and its relatively uneventful bookends, the opening title track and closer From The Dead. Both have grown on me since their potentially skippable first impressions, but they really don’t function as more than cool intro and outro, respectively. With the oddball Motherfucker thrown in as well, a sort of borderline segue/song, you never feel like it’s got quite as much substance as Album Of The Year, which was only a few minutes longer. To say the least, the album does a good job of trading quantity for quality, taking the adage “less is more” to an extreme, hardly daring to repeat a single hook once. It’s to a fault, or to the album’s great credit, depending on who you ask and how they’re feeling that day.
I won’t go into any trite soapboxing about whether or not this is an acceptable “comeback album” or what Faith No More may or may not have had to prove to anyone, whether they did or did not succeed in doing so, or any of all that obvious blogger bullshit. But what I do feel is safe to say, and re-affirmed by this album, is that Faith No More is still very much a force to be reckoned with, and one of the most powerful bands still working.
Sol Invictus little bit of everything that makes Faith No More one of the greatest and most influential hard rock bands to come along in the last three decades. And that’s what’s frustrating about it, that it’s just a little bit.