Atheist – Unquestionably Present in the Past and Future of Death Metal
WHO: Atheist, the quintessential innovators of progressive and technical death metal from the early 90’s. Beginning in the late 80’s as Oblivion and then R.A.V.A.G.E. (Raging Atheists Vowing A Gory End), Atheist had a 17 year gap (1993 – 2010) where no studio material was released. This incarnation was Kelly Shaefer on vocals/guitar, Randy Burke on guitar, Steve Flynn (Gnostic) on drums, and Tony Choy (Pestilence, Cynic) on bass. Choy was brought in to play lines written by Roger Patterson, who tragically died in car crash before recording the album.
WHERE: Although Atheist would become famous for introducing very different styles of music into their metal (like jazz, samba, and flamenco), the band’s style lies firmly entrenched in, and perhaps helped define, the Florida death metal sound.
WHEN: 1991, on Active Records / Metal Blade Records, and re-released by Relapse Records. The following canonical (and more straightforward) records were released in the same year: Butchered at Birth by Cannibal Corpse, Dawn of Possession by Immolation, and Blessed are the Sick by Morbid Angel. Death was only beginning their progressive stride in 1991 with Human.
WHY IT’S A CLASSIC: Even in death metal’s early days, Atheist was defying and expanding the genre. While many of their peers were banging on the crypt doors, Atheist had moved into space, spirituality, and philosophy, a thematic influence very much evident in the cosmic, spiritual melodies and introspective technical surges of their music.
Unquestionable Presence has a hint of death metal’s roots from the harsher side of 80s thrash. The thrashing, headbanging sections were coupled with breaks of (thematically, sonically, and literally) psychic technicality, and accented by jazz interludes. Their progressive leanings were absolutely peerless at the time, and continue to be an influence in modern technical death metal (see Obscura or Beyond Creation).
HOW: On tracks like “Enthralled in Essence” the guitars cut precisely and exactly, like sharpened razors, while the bass nimbly wavers in and out of the lead, sounding more like another guitar than the typical role of simple support. Songs like “An Incarnation’s Dream” are intricate yet infectious, complex yet never disorienting. They are jazz tinged but thrash fueled, technically proficient yet melodically captivating; in a single word, dynamic.
Unlike many modern technically driven albums, every song is memorable and has its own identity. Often bands choose between catchy or heavy, technical or melodic; in contrast, songs like opener “Mother Man,” Atheist plays all of these at once.
The tempo changes are numerous, and repetition is rare, but the songs feel familiar after only a single listen. Atheist remains an essential part of technical and progressive death metal, and Unquestionable Presence showcases this, as Shaefer and company bring the psychic and cosmos portrayed on the cover into an auditory world of intricate yet memorable metal.