Review Summary: Boldly experimental and uncompromisingly esoteric, Atheist's breakthrough album is a testament to technical music, challenging fans and new-comers alike with its complexity and experimentation.
It was 1991, and death metal had just reached recognizable status. Band’s like Cannibal Corpse and Deicide held the torch and defined the early Florida death metal scene. But there was something else growing amidst the slew of gruesome gore and satanic death metal bands of the time, something far more challenging and intricate. Just as death metal became a noted style in the slew of metal sub-genres, already a group of bands were breaking new ground, incorporating elements such as progressive rock and jazz into the genre. At the forefront of this bold new experimentation was Atheist, whose style and technicality were, at the time, unmatched.
1989’s Piece of Time baffled critics and fans alike. Critics were shocked by the complex grooves and schizophrenic time signatures that riddled its esoteric yet uncompromising style of death metal fury, and fans just didn’t get it. Yet this would pale in comparison to their legendary breakthrough release, Unquestionable Presence. Recorded during one of their most tumultuous times (their founding bassist Roger Patterson died in a tragic car crash), yet still managed to become possibly the most influential and groundbreaking metal release of the 90’s, Unquestionable Presence broke new ground and took death metal to new levels of progression and experimentation.
Like Piece of Time, Unquestionable Presence is tremendously complex and uncompromisingly esoteric. Every song is a challenging and progressive experience, without an inch of filler littering its 32 minute length. Every member of the band is virtuosic with their instruments. The bass, written by Roger Patterson but performed by Tony Choy of Pestilence fame, is most noticeable. Roger Patterson’s incredibly groovy, technical bass lines are performed admirably by Tony Choy. Vocalist and guitarist Kelly Shaefer and second guitarist Rand Burkey perform just as admirably, with dissonant, twisting riffs weaving in and out of each other, while blistering, melodic solos litter the album. Steve Flynn is, in my opinion, one of the genres most underrated drummers; His technical ability easily matching musical contemporaries such as Sean Reinert of Cynic and Gene Hoglan of Death respectably.
All of the members take things 5 steps further on Unquestionable Presence, seamlessly integrating elements of Jazz/fusion, progressive rock, and even Latin music into the foray. Every song is challenging and intricate, never dissolving into incomprehensible wank. Peppered in between the abrasive, dissonant technical metal mayhem are incredibly melodic, comprehensible clean passages and melodic solos. These passages are tied seamlessly together with the precision and skill of bands 10 year older than them. Lyrically, Kelly Schaefer improves leaps and bounds, with such thought-provoking themes such as spirituality, humanity, and other-worldly, paranormal activities, all delivered with Schaefer’s fierce, raspy growl.
Truly, even by today’s standards this stands as one of progressive metals most outstanding achievements. Its technicality and progressiveness are unmatched even today. Its importance in extreme music is acknowledged far and wide, and its influence is just as far reaching. It’s bold experimentation and profound lyrics were unheard of at the time, and without it, extreme metal would not quite be the same.