While it probably won't top Angel Dust or The Real Thing for most longtime fans, Sol Invictus finds Faith No More fully engaged and playing with enthusiasm. That's a whole lot better than where they left it in the late '90s.
Sol Invictus is an interesting version of the reunion album. Over the past decade, plenty of indie rock and heavy metal bands have returned from long hiatuses for reasons both monetary and creative. When the former has been the focus (hello, The Pixies), the eventual album has tended to be disappointing. When a band just seems to want to work together again (any number of metal acts from the past 10 years, plus Harvey Milk, Swans, and Dinosaur, Jr.), their albums have been much more successful. Faith No More spent several years cashing nice checks on European festival dates in the late '00s and early '10s, but resisted any North American tours until here in 2015, when they have a new album ready to go. As a result, Sol Invictus seems to come from a genuine desire of the band members to work on new material, after a few tentative years of playing the oldies.
Faith No More was one of rock's more unlikely success stories in the 1990's. They came up in San Francisco in the early '80s and ran through a slew of vocalists before settling on Chuck Mosley, whose vocal style could charitably be referred to as "unique" and uncharitably described as "just awful." Despite the huge weak spot right at the front of the band, Faith No More's independent debut, We Care a Lot, netted them a major label deal, and their second record, Introduce Yourself, found the re-recorded "We Care a Lot", a funky track that somehow made Mosley's vocals an asset, becoming a minor hit smack dab in the midst of hair metal's popularity.
The band finally kicked Mosley to the curb on the eve of recording their third album, The Real Thing, and somehow landed themselves the incredibly talented vocalist Mike Patton. The Real Thing took off in 1990 with the success of "Epic", and Faith No More became the first rock band to successfully fuse hip-hop and heavy metal on the North American charts (Run DMC and The Beastie Boys obviously came at rock from a hip-hop perspective, while Anthrax's jokey "I'm the Man" didn't break through to the mainstream).
"Epic" made Faith No More a success, but The Real Thing won them a fanbase, and the band continued through the '90s with the amazing Angel Dust and the strong King for a Day, Fool for a Lifetime. Those records continued the musical adventurousness that became their hallmark, but never returned them to chart-topping success. Things ended with '97's competent but lackluster Album of the Year, which was notable mostly for bringing new guitarist Jon Hudson into the fold, and for a tour which featured a young Limp Bizkit as the opening act. Once the touring cycle for Album of the Year finished out in '98, Faith No More went their separate ways. No word on whether the members of the band spent the late '90s and early '00s regretting what they had inadvertently wrought as nü-metal took over the airwaves.
Initially, Sol Invictus doesn't seem as diverse as the material from the band's '90s heyday. That iteration of Faith No More was never content to stick to one overarching style, though bass and drums-driven hard rock was as close a description as any. They seemed just as likely to do bossa nova as they were to try death metal. And there's nothing on this record that's as chill as the funk-soul of "Evidence" or as punishing as the hardcore "Surprise! You're Dead!" But that doesn't mean that the songwriting isn't good, and multiple listens begin to bring out the variety in the material.
Lead single "Motherfucker" was divisive when it first hit the internet back in November of 2014. With chanted verses by keyboardist Roddy Bottum, Patton's signature voice doesn't even show up until the chorus, and even then the song never quite hits that driving rock section that most bands would. Instead, Faith No More opts for an out-of-nowhere guitar hero solo from Hudson before Patton repeatedly shouts the chorus, and a second guitar solo quietly fades the song out. It's a musical curveball, which, really, fans probably should've expected from the band. Second single "Superhero", with its crashing guitars, gothic piano lines, thumping bass, and about half a dozen different vocal styles from Patton, is much more representative of a "typical" Faith No More track. Even so, though, Patton mostly disappears from the song before the halfway point, leaving the rest of the band to jam out. And when they do, they jam out on the slower breakdown section for three minutes rather than the hard charging hard rock of the verses.
Both songs feel quite different when put into context of the full album. "Superhero" shows up as the second track, coming on the heels of the low-key, portentous "Sol Invictus". The latter, with lyrics about a crisis of faith, beautiful warm minor-key piano chords, and quietly pounding drums, sounds like it's building up to something. In this case, it's building up to "Superhero", which launches full throttle and fades into the relaxed "Sunny Side Up", a song with one of the record's catchiest choruses. It's a chorus that the band and Patton entertainingly destroy by pushing it into a shouted, hard-edged refrain before backing off again. Both "Sunny Side Up" and "Sol Invictus" come in under the three-minute mark, showing that the band has the savvy to build a song around a simple musical idea and not ruin it by stretching it too far.
The pounding bass and drums of "Separation Anxiety" feel like vintage Faith No More, as Patton whispers, sings, and eventually shouts about having to "Separate the anxiety" as the song builds to a chaotic guitar solo from Hudson and crashing cymbals from Mike Bordin. More interesting is the dark, sparse guitar riff of "Cone of Shame", which, coupled with Patton's low, gravelly delivery, could almost be a Nick Cave track. It's genuinely creepy at times, and quiet background organ from Bottum and chimes from Bordin add to the atmosphere before the song explodes into a pulsing full band workout. "Rise of the Fall" starts like another hard rock song, but then takes a left turn into quiet verses enhanced by various percussion sounds and accordion. It also includes the album's most evocative turn of phrase from Patton, "We're standing tall / Where only chimneys remain."
As interesting as these minor variations on the theme are, they get a bit repetitive. Every song in the middle of the album has an intriguing idea, but every song also hits an explosive rock section, usually the chorus, that resembles each of the other songs. On "Black Friday", it's the acoustic guitar and handclaps in the verses and a bass-driven bridge. But it's not enough to really differentiate it from the previous three songs, which puts track number eight, "Motherfucker", into a completely different context than as a single. Here, it's an overdue break from the overly similar song construction. A huge, catchy chorus where everyone can belt out "Hello motherfucker! / My lover / You saw it coming" is a much-needed change of pace, as is that super-melodic, guitar hero solo from Hudson.
The album winds down with the full-on gothic storytelling of "Matador", which has the same big rock chorus as the songs in the middle of the record, but has a gradual build that makes the chorus feel earned, especially over its six-minute running time. "From the Dead" finishes Sol Invictus on a bright note, as its only major key song. It's fully melodic, driven entirely by acoustic guitar and Patton's warmest singing voice. It's a breath of fresh air after all the atmospheric gloom, and the fact that it bears more than a passing resemblance to King for a Day's closer "Just a Man" actually helps the song, as it serves a similar palate-cleansing function.
Sol Invictus probably isn't going to top Angel Dust or The Real Thing on most fans' lists of favorite Faith No More albums, but it's a step up from Album of the Year and holds its own with the strong but slightly bloated King for a Day, Fool for a Lifetime record. This is a solid comeback album that succeeds on its own terms. Namely, the whole band sounds engaged and enthusiastic to be working together, and that's good for everyone that's ever had a vested interest in Faith No More.