Formed as far back as 1984 as Oblivion and despite not releasing an album until 1989, one of the pioneers of technical death metal, Atheist were – and still are – one of the most creatively imaginative metal bands out there. Having broken ground with their less complex but still highly technical debut Piece of Time, the band began work on their second record but tragically lost bassist Roger Patterson – who wrote all the basslines on the album and can be heard on the pre-production demos – in a van crash and quickly found a replacement in session musician Tony Choy, who had played on fellow Florida band Cynic’s demos. Despite not being the first or fastest tech-death album out there (The Key by Nocturnus, released a year before, sets a high standard with its sheer brutality and alien keyboard harmonies) Unquestionable Presence is by and far one of the most original albums of the genre, distancing itself from the raw anger and aggression of their last album by introducing a heavy jazz-fusion element to their sound.
Nothing on this album goes easy on the listener, starting off with a couple of seconds of build-up before the jazzy chaos that is Mother Man launches itself into action, bouncing between time signatures with every new section of the song and making its mark right away. Despite the unhinged vibe it has, there’s always a sense of playfulness about the songs – even in their heaviest or most confusing moments it never once feels like they’re taking themselves too seriously, whether it’s guitarist and vocalist Kelly Schafer going from shrieking to vaguely on-key singing or some of the lighter and less thrashy/progressive riffs. Suddenly, three-and-a-half minutes in, the song slows down for a brief and pretty bass break followed one of the best solos on the record, achieving a perfect balance between being melodic and technical without ever giving itself over to soulless shredding – that gets left to the riffs and the drumming. Featuring otherworldly double-tracked vocals, the song Unquestionable Presence has a fair few surprising nods to Iron Maiden of all bands – especially in the intro and the hook (as much as it can be called that) – and similar touches appear throughout the album, making it seem somewhat like a death metal answer to 1988’s Seventh Son of a Seventh Son. Arguably the most accessible song on the album, due to sacrificing some of the technicality for catchiness without comprising on the band’s sound, it makes for a good introduction to both the band and the genre. Your Life’s Retribution also takes a more straightforward direction than most of the album when it comes to metal, focusing more on the riffs than the rest of the band and mostly keeping Steve Flynn’s wild yet precise drumming to simpler (but still insanely fast) beats and the occasional explosive fill. Opening with one of the most crushing riffs Atheist have ever written, and sounding almost like an outtake from Piece of Time until the rhythm changes, Enthralled in Essence flickers between some of the strangest moments on the album – the lone, keyboard-sounding harmonic that appears a minute in acts almost like a warning that things are about to get really weird – and some of the best riffs and solos as well, going from an angular and surreal bass-led breakdown to one of the most memorable guitar solos without either element sounding out of place. Despite having not written the bass parts, Choy makes them his own with his own style of playing – harder-edged and jazzier than Patterson but with echoes of his predecessor’s style and meshing in perfectly with the band’s sound.
Schafer’s vocals are truly out there, even by death metal standards, going between growls and hoarse shouts and passionate attempts at singing to emphasise certain sentences. His unique voice adds to the off-the-rails feeling the album has, and despite the impossibly complex compositions and harsh vocals the lyrics are surprisingly philosophical, forming a loose concept album about aliens trying to guide humanity away from being self-destructive – a far cry from other bands at the time who focused on death, violence and physical suffering instead, with the original pioneers Death being one of the few other bands that went for a less horror-themed approach. An Incarnation’s Dream is probably the most varied song on the album, which is no small feat – after a minute-long intro that layers subtle acoustic guitars over a sample of a riot, the song goes through an entire Greatest Hits worth of riffs and bizarre style changes in the remaining 4 four minutes, including Latin-inspired breakdowns, a shuffle beat (on a death metal album!) backing one of the many guitar solos, and the section starting from 3:15…which needs to be experienced for yourself because I have literally no idea how to describe it. Schafer is at his most misanthropic here, spitting out “doesn’t anybody have any sense anymore? I guess not!” with the full amount of world-weary disgust that’s been building up throughout the album. The Formative Years acts as a heavier counterpart to Your Life’s Retribution, tempering the twisty and complex sections of the song with galloping thrash metal riffs and a brief bass and drums-only breakdown that manages to be the single heaviest moment on the album. Appropriately enough, the most jazz-influenced and progressive song on the album is titled Brains – on an album that’s start-to-finish weird time signatures and chord progressions this one stands out most of all for how experimental it is, leaning heavily on Choy’s slap bass technique that had been sparingly used up to this point to pierce through the wall of noise laid down by the guitars and drumming. Finally, one of the more mosh-friendly (while still remaining just as technical) songs – And the Psychic Saw – rounds out the album by bringing everything from before together in a nearly 5-minute long blast of energy. Winding the song down gradually in the bridge to a series of huge, doomy power chords over super fast jazz drumming, along with the best vocal performance on the album, the song seemingly draws to a close…before the riff from the intro kicks in again and restarts the song with just as much energy as it had to start with, this time giving the song – and album – a definitive close once it reaches the bridge again with the sound of a gong being hit.
A monumental landmark for both extreme metal and jazz fusion, Unquestionable Presence stands as one of the crowning achievements of the Floridian death metal scene and a creative triumph for Atheist…who would go on to disband the next year, regroup to write and record the even more experimental and jazz-influenced Elements in just 40 days to get out of their label contract, and then split up again for the next decade. Despite their fraught history and slim discography, to this day Atheist remain highly influential in the world of extreme metal, having shown that “technical” doesn’t always have to only mean “faster and with more notes” but “more intricate and complex” – and their early 90s masterpiece remains as an unquestionable presence.
Genres… technical death metal, progressive metal, jazz fusion
Best tracks… Mother Man, Unquestionable Presence, Enthralled in Essence, An Incarnation’s Dream, And the Psychic Saw