Like a Woodpecker from Mars, 'Angel Dust' Is Unimaginably Awesome

by Joseph Fisher

11 August 2011

Faith No More's Angel Dust compels us to reimagine the genre distinctions on which the processes of music production and consumption rest.

I can’t help but snicker at the recent ruckus that The Onion caused at the MetalSucks website. After The A.V. Club ran a crossword puzzle on July 13 with the clue “Faith No More’s only hit” (36 down), MetalSucks responded with a month-long blog series, spanning all of the following August, dedicated to celebrating that band’s music. Entitled “31 Days of Faith No More”, the series contains brief musings on one FNM track for each and every one of August’s days. What’s more is that the series is archived under MS‘s “Hipsters Out of Metal!” category.

Personally, I’ve never been a big fan of metal. I’m also beyond over the hipster backlash. Nevertheless, it brings me great joy to see MS‘s obvious full-throated attack at The A.V. Club. If Steven Hyden’s often brilliant series Whatever Happened to Alternative Nation? proved anything, it was that metal (still) is not highly regarded among “hip” music writers. While expending several hundreds of words in the series, Hyden succeeded in ignoring Faith No More entirely, lambasting nü metal, and, of course, singing the praises of Guided by Voices. If all of us could just stop right here and, for once, be honest with ourselves, we could acknowledge that if, say, Limp Bizkit’s Fred Durst ever wrote a song called “Tractor Rape Chain”, every indie/hip/left-of-center media outlet in the universe would get all Brent DiCrescenzo on him (those outlets have already done that, actually). But since Robert Pollard is kind of cheeky and weird, he (apparently) gets a permanent hall pass—as do men who name themselves after cute, cuddly animals.
But here’s the thing: the divides between hipster and metalhead culture are way overdetermined—particularly if they are viewed through the legacy of Faith No More. More than any other alternative rock band, Faith No More seamlessly blended the full-throttle blast of metal and hardcore with the raw aggression of rap, the icy grooves of New Wave synthpop, throbbing funk, jazz, gospel, and prog rock (to name just a few) to create a monstrous, thoroughly bizarre musical amalgam that came from out of nowhere. Heck, they were even known to toss in a few aboriginal chants just for good measure. And none of that even broaches the fact that back before your Ted Leos, Ezra Koenigs, and Bangin Productions were being all (insufferably) ironic, FNM absolutely owned the entire cover song genre. Yes. The entire genre:

If any single album attests to the boundary-shattering force of Faith No More’s music, it is the group’s 1992 release Angel Dust, an unmatchable high-water mark in the canon of rock music. From the opening rush of the dizzying carnivalesque “Land of Sunshine” through the sleaze of the spoken-word “RV” all the way to the ferocious, grotesquely titled “Jizzlobber”, Angel Dust compels us to reimagine the genre distinctions on which the processes of music production and consumption rest. In many ways, it’s entirely appropriate that the record was released by Geffen—a label that was, at the time, home to Aerosmith—because it is inconceivable that a record this unapologetically strange would sit side-by-side with something as bland as Get a Grip (Alicia Silverstone videos aside, of course).

However, that uncomfortable and seemingly unholy juxtaposition is the entire point of Angel Dust. Beauty, terror, gentleness, brutality—all of them can coexist, definitely on the same record, and even in the same song. Just look at the album cover—a gorgeous shot of a peaceful egret, framed by a title that at once conjures the hideous destruction of this life and the ecstasy of the eternity that we hope might follow it. These contradictions are what leave us music writers fucked whenever we hazard an attempt to talk about Angel Dust. Songs like “Malpractice” are beyond words—potentially beyond criticism. Truly, they reside on the edge of the world, where the horizon meets its end and the blogosphere finally stops burbling.

The same is true of the similarly hard tracks “Caffeine” and the better-known “Midlife Crisis” (the album’s first single), both of which are metal but are not metallic. Whatever sheen Jim Martin’s riffs provide these two songs is thoroughly bruised by the herky-jerky throb of the band’s rhythm section—Mike Bordin’s frenetic drumming in particular. Both songs blend Anglo aggro with the polyrhythmic power of Afrobeat, making them—and the full record by extension—transcultural. Seventeen years later, tastemakers would begin saying similar things about tUnE-yArDs.

Still, it is the record’s more plaintive cuts—“Kindergarten” and “Everything’s Ruined”—that elevate Angel Dust to untouchable status. Each of these songs progress toward their own deconstruction, as Mike Patton’s lyrics so often belie the seeming austerity of the band’s compositions. “Kindergarten” plays in a fairly straightforward and solemn fashion. Musically, the track is pristine; lyrically, it’s a hilarious indictment of the trappings of youth—flopping film projectors, sticky shorts, vomit, and the like. The only missing musical accoutrement is a group of silly rapping cheerleaders. Oh, wait… Likewise, “Everything’s Ruined” reads as some kind of a pseudo-Marxist critique of the nuclear family unit—keyboardist Roddy Bottum’s playing smoothing the song’s jagged edges and rendering it rather contemplative. Then, of course, the band would go and release the following absurd video to accompany the song. Fast-forward to about 4:00 for the shot of the bird crap:

And then, how does the band score the final minutes of its maniacal masterpiece?  With a cover song, of course—this time of John Barry’s “Midnight Cowboy”. It’s a calming conclusion that has become all the more somber by the knowledge that Faith No More would never sound quite this good again.

Arguably, indie rock came of age in the 1990s via landmark releases by Pavement, Sebadoh, and, indeed, Guided by Voices. Many of these ‘90s indie bands were self-consciously weird and privileged irony as a mechanism for distancing themselves from their music (absent irony, lousy recording technologies would do). Those aesthetic and performative flourishes descended to the world of indie rock directly from Faith No More, a band that rapped about the hypocrisy of celebrity activism, Transformers, and Garbage Pail Kids all in one song, in the mid 1980s. Additionally, one of the group’s core members consistently sported glasses that are dead ringers for Ray-Ban Wayfarers. That same guitarist, it should be noted, is responsible for shredding on a rather metallish track called “Surprise! You’re Dead!” In retrospect, it seems that Faith No More made it safe—and appealing!—for hipsters to be metalheads, and for metalheads to be hipsters. It may have been a small victory, but that doesn’t make it any less meaningful.

P.S. “Crack Hitler” is ace, too.

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