Essential Albums #2: “Angel Dust” by Faith No More

"Angel Dust" era Faith No More

"Angel Dust" era Faith No More

After the release of “The Real Thing” in 1989, San Francisco’s Faith No More became – most likely to the band’s surprise – commercially successful. The album, the first to feature vocalist Mike Patton, took off after rock radio and MTV embraced the song “Epic.” The band was also nominated for a Grammy Award in the category of “best metal performance.”

Considering the commercial embrace of “The Real Thing,” it would have been easy for FNM to simply copy the formula for the band’s follow-up album. But instead of a batch of  rock radio-friendly tracks, Patton, guitarist Jim Martin and the band threw convention out the window with the eclectic, head-spinning and brilliant “Angel Dust.”

Fans expecting an album full of tracks like “Epic,” “Falling to Pieces” or “From Out of Nowhere” probably wondered if the band was playing a joke on them with “Angel Dust.” The album was about as radio-unfriendly as it could be, ranging from sludge metal (“Jizzlobber”) to easy listening from hell (“RV”) and genuine, genreless weirdness (“Crack Hitler,” “Be Aggressive”). There’s madness, but there’s genius – if the listener has the patience to give the album more than one or two spins and dig inside the songs.

“Land of Sunshine” sets the skewed vibe of “Angel Dust” with a funk bass, carnival music keyboards, metal guitar distortion and moments of maniacal laughter. Over the top (literally and figuratively), Patton spits out  fortune cookie feel-good generalities and self-help psychobabble (“life to you is a dashing, bold adventure … I can help you help yourself”), while undercutting the faux-happy tone with the question, “does life seem worthwhile to you?” Despite Jim Martin’s distorted guitar, the track is sing-songy rather than heavy. “Land of Sunshine” is a declaration to listeners to discard hopes for an album full of “Epic” clones.

“Caffeine,” the second track, is heavier than anything on “The Real Thing,” with a driving guitar and vocals that range from the crooned quasi-chorus to bellows. The band then throws the metal vibe out the widow with “Midlife Crisis,” a big-chorus, hip-hoppish track that is as catchy as “Caffeine” was abrasive.

angel dust

Despite the curve balls of the first three tracks, they don’t prepare the listener for “RV,” a county-western/lounge music hybrid that has only a few moments of heaviness in the bridge. Keyboardist Roddy Bottum picks out a seemingly innocent melody while Martin lays on the surf-guitar distortion. Patton’s lyrics on “RV” are a hysterical take on trailer park stereotypes – although the lyrics could easily apply to the American lower middle class.

After offering up observations like “somebody taps me on the shoulder every five minutes/nobody speaks English anymore/would anybody tell me if I was gettin’ stupider?” Patton lets loose with the scream of suburban desperation: “I’m a swingin’ guy/throw a belt over the shower curtain rod/and swing/toss me inside a Hefty/and put me in the ground.” While funny, there’s a dark undercurrent to “RV,” an uncomfortable insight into American life. “RV” is the choice to laugh at life rather than shriek.

“Smaller And Smaller” starts out with a metal riff and a Middle Eastern vocal delivery … before degenerating into a midsection of Native American chanting and sampling, driven by drummer Mike Bordin and bassist Billy Gould. The song then swings back into near-metal mode with a Martin guitar solo. Keyboards were an important part of the Faith No More sound, and Bottum’s keys really drive “Smaller And Smaller.” As a song, it either defies genre entirely or combines so many genres that it’s impossible to categorize.

“Everything’s Ruined” comes closest to the “Epic” formula, with some rapped Patton vocals and an opening keyboard riff that sounds like a speeded-up version of “Epic’s” end. But Patton’s vocals stand out here: The man can sing, and he displays his entire non-screaming range on “Everything’s Ruined,” from low rumbles to the full baritone. The band shot a video for the song, which makes sense: It’s the closest track on “Angel Dust” to a commercial single.

The album then proceeds to melt down with “Malpractice,” a noisy, speedy industrial metal assault that features Patton’s anguished screaming, air raid siren samples a wall of background noise. But the thrash is broken in half by a tinkling, tick-tock interlude before the stomp resumes. There’s no middle ground or compromise in “Malpractice”: It has something to alienate casual fans and metalheads.

“Kindergarten” is again funk-filled and nearly conventional – with Big Patton choruses and Billy Gould’s heavy bass line. It’s strange, but pretty safe overall … nothing, in other words, like the twisted “Be Aggressive,” which features a cheerleader chorus (yes, real cheerleaders), keyboards lines out of a Dracula movie, a blazing solo, frenetic drumming by Bordin and a flamboyant, exuberant vocal performance by Patton. “Be Aggressive” shouldn’t work at all – it’s too bizarre for its on good, on the surface – but the band commits everything to the performance. Instead of being the lead weight that sinks “Angel Dust,” it’s a standout track.

“A Small Victory” again shifts that album back to the conventional, with a pleasant, unthreatening keyboard/guitar melody line, a funk bass and a subdued but … perhaps “spirited” is the right word – Patton performance.  “Crack Hitler,” however, shifts genres again – this time to 70s blaxploitation soundtrack. If the goal of “Angel Dust” was to exhaust casual fans with the limitless shifts in music, “Crack Hitler” probably threw a lot of those semi-fans over the cliff.

“Jizzlobber” shifts the album again – this time practically into death metal. Tuned down and pummeling, with keyboards like sirens and distorted vocals, the song is still the heaviest track in the band’s career – although “Cuckoo For Caca,” from “King For A Day, Fool For A Lifetime” came close to surpassing it. After the doom-sludge, “Jizzlobber” ends with a prolonged pipe organ solo … and is followed by a straight-faced cover of the theme song from the film “Midnight Cowboy.” It’s a quiet, seemingly disconnected ending, but it also offers a nice moment to decompress from the extreme violence of “Jizzlobber.”

Martin left Faith No More over the usual “musical differences” after “Angel Dust,” and the band carried on with different guitarists on “King For A Day …” and “Album Of The Year.” They were both good discs … but “Angel Dust” was Faith No More’s career peak. As an adventure in musical extremes, it hasn’t been surpassed.

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