Faith No More‘s Angel Dust, released 30 years ago, still sounds like a record executive’s nightmare— hyperactive, inaccessible, misanthropic— a record whose defining legacy is that it blindsided everyone. One critic in June of 1992 even described the record as “a band… going out of its way searching for detours to outwit, rather than connect with, any audience— be it the critical MTV mass or the original Faith-ful” (Frost 17). Judging by initial sales of this eagerly-awaited successor to the Platinum-certified The Real Thing (1989), Faith No More indeed found a way to alienate a half-million customers.
The Real Thing generated so much hoopla and held enough user-friendliness to make the San Francisco band Grammy-nominated and MTV-approved, earning them a Saturday Night Live appearance. It was one of those albums you picked up on cassette after your friend, previously into Rainbow, blared the album in his fireball Mazda. But Angel Dust was Faith No More from a parallel universe, from a Bizarro world— the album endorsed by your other friend, the one into Black Flag and Nietzsche. So imagine the horror on the faces of the record label yuppies, still clinging to the decade of greed, counting on The Real Thing: Part II, when, instead, they got “R.V.” and “Crack Hitler”.
By all appearances, here was a band engaged in mutiny, refusing to kiss the ring of corporate rock, offering the musical equivalent of a William Burroughs novel. Yet, as much as I like the idea of a group intentionally giving corporate rock the finger, spite was never the objective. Several factors were at play. For one, music journalists across 1990 repeatedly dubbed Faith No More as “funk metal”, a moniker they despised. Angel Dust on some level represents their attempt to distance themselves from that descriptor.
Also, think about this: when Angel Dust came out, we weren’t living in 1989 anymore. Anyone who remembers the turn of the decade might agree with Pitchfork’s Stuart Berman that, though a good record, The Real Thing sounds a lot like 1989 (a year that gave us gluttonous wonders like Warrant and Skid Row). Illustrating how three years in the music industry is a lifetime, 1992, by contrast, gave us Tool‘s Opiate, Nine Inch Nails‘ Broken, Rage Against the Machine‘s debut, and Angel Dust. In other words, an album from the same template as The Real Thing may have never caught fire in 1992— the year that, according to Melody Maker’s Simon Reynolds, “punk finally happened in America” (30).
Not only would a sequel to The Real Thing have sounded outdated, but such a record was also no longer possible because a new songwriter entered the arrangement, altering the band’s brain chemistry. The last time Faith No More made a record, Mike Patton was an emergency-replacement vocalist for Chuck Mosely, given two weeks to scribble lyrics to an album’s worth of songs already composed and arranged. Now, having time to adjust to the group, he was part of the incubation, importing his aesthetic— and the guy definitely had an aesthetic.
There’s the matter of Patton’s other band, the one from Eureka, California, the band that thrived on volatility and absurdism. Between Faith No More albums, Mr. Bungle released their major-label debut in August 1991, produced by the experimental Jazz composer John Zorn (somewhat of a mentor to Patton). Let’s be clear: Bungle was never a side project. Patton came to Faith No More from Mr. Bungle, not the other way around. As for the Mike Patton that emerges on Angel Dust— all bets are off. The nasal angst of the previous record chucked aside, the Mike Patton of Angel Dust operates in full-bodied voice, a thousand voices, where the lyrics are stream of consciousness, “roleplay”, sleep deprivation poetry. Once you hear “Caffeine”, “Epic” sounds juvenile. On Angel Dust, Patton seems determined to distance himself from the younger skate-punk version of himself, as though a few months with Bungle and Zorn realigned him— so much that anyone who ever compared Patton to Anthony Kiedis (namely, Kiedis) now looks like a damn fool.
Consider Faith No More’s July 1992 appearance on Hangin’ with MTV, the cable channel’s short-lived, hip version of American Bandstand. The hosts plugged “Luke Perry’s new movie”, and audience members gyrated to adolescent-clothing-department tunes. Patton emerged wearing an oil company ball cap and white tee-shirt with shorts and hiking shoes, mocking the studio fog machine, taunting a heckler, calling the set “cheesy”, half-paying attention to interview questions, cueing the band to interrupt the emcee, and vacillating between crooner-voice and death-metal growl. He seems determined never to be reinvited.
As much as Faith No More now bore Patton’s imprint, Angel Dust was never a case of Patton dragging the band where they didn’t want to go. Though guitarist Jim Martin had some issues with the album-making process, found the songwriting contrived, and eventually found the door, everyone else was on board, making a collective decision to expand their sound. Drummer Mike Bordin insists, “We made the record we wanted to make” (Popoff 154). Bassist Billy Gould explains that while The Real Thing wasn’t a bad album, it soon sounded one-dimensional (Renzhofer). Plus, 16 months of touring that record left them exhausted with those songs, and their creative survival depended on chucking the template, going wherever the path took them. That path led to a record titled not merely after a drug but entailing an odd juxtaposition of words encapsulating the album’s musical psychology— the beatific and the depraved. It’s a dynamic further expressed via the album art, with Werner Krutein’s photograph of a snowy egret beneath a cobalt sky offset by Mark Burnstein’s imagery of slaughtered meat hanging in a cold chamber.
Despite Angel Dust’s contrariness, several high-profile critics lauded the record. Rolling Stone’s Tom Sinclair called it “astonishing… musically adventurous”. Chris Willman of the Los Angeles Times classified the album as “an underbelly with tight stomach muscles”. On the other hand, Don Kaye of Kerrang magazine described the album as suffering from a personality disorder (not meant as a compliment). But while Kaye maintained that the record is diminished by tracks merely intended for shock, Faith No More morphed from MTV darlings into a band with more of a cult following, a following that came to value the same qualities Kaye poo-pooed.
A decade later, Kerrang repented and designated Angel Dust the most influential rock record of the past 30 years, noting the number of bands from Sepultura to the Dillinger Escape Plan, citing the album as integral to their development. While the album may have dumbfounded mainstream American audiences, Angel Dust outsold its predecessor in European countries, where audiences are more accustomed to avant-garde music— music that deliberately provokes and challenges the rules and regulations (Popoff 154).
Given that Angel Dust is now (at this writing) 30 years old, does it sound like 1992? It does if sounding like 1992 means reflecting the American zeitgeist of 1992. We’re talking about the year of the Los Angeles riots, an outpouring of rage against an America that had failed the participants. Though the sessions for Angel Dust were completed two months before the riots, artists often intuit culture in the manner of farm animals before an earthquake. To that end, Angel Dust features a gallery of late-night motivational hucksters and television preachers (“Land of Sunshine”), white trash (“R.V.”), cast members of Blaxploitation flicks (“Crack Hitler”), illusions of financial security (“Midlife Crisis”), a migrant worker’s fever dream (“Smaller and Smaller”) and fear of incarceration (“Jizzlobber”) capped off with elevator music as a panacea (“Midnight Cowboy”). If this album has a unifying idea, it’s that of deconstructing the American Dream.
Until nearly a decade ago, I cited King for a Day… Fool for a Lifetime (1995) as my favorite Faith No More album (primarily for Trey Spruance’s guitar work). What happened? Well, what happened entailed a midlife career change and a midlife graduate degree in fine arts— hence, inspiring greater empathy and admiration for any artist that deplores serving the same grub while the higher-ups ask, “Do you know what the hell you’re doing?” That’s why Angel Dust remains one of my formative records, not just for the songs but for the attitude driving the whole thing— for a band so hellbent on following their creative instincts that they were willing to risk alienating a half-million people.
As for the other half-million of us— being blindsided made us fans for life.
Frost, Deborah. “Faith No More: Angel Bust.” Newsday. 14 Jun 1992.
Kaye, Don. “Faith No More: Angel Dust.” Kerrang. No. 395. 6 June 1992.
Popoff, Martin. The Top 500 Heavy Metal Albums of All Time. ECW Press. 2004.
Renzhofer, Martin. “Faith No More Band Has Faith in Music, Not Labels”. The Salt Lake Tribune. 5 February 1993.
Reynolds, Simon. “And Dust Is for All: Angel Dust by Faith No More.” Melody Maker. Vol 68. Issue 22. 1992.
Sinclair, Tom. “Noise from Underground: Angel Dust by Faith No More.” Rolling Stone. No. 638. 3 September 1992.
Willman, Chris. “Faith No More; Angel Dust.” Los Angeles Times. 21 June 1992.