Last fall, the ever-unpredictable rock outfit Faith No More released its first new studio offering in 16 years, a slow-growing monster track with a title unprintable by this publication. It doesn’t sound much like any of the band’s other material, although it is inherently Faith No More-like, showcasing frontman Mike Patton’s impressive whisper-to-a-bellow vocal range and a ripping guitar solo while also mustering a staggering amount of power from its barely audible opening to its final retreat.
The song served as the introduction to “Sol Invictus,” the band’s first studio album since 1997. In the context of the album, which is full of churning, big-picture hard rock, the single was a bit of a curveball. But then, keeping listeners awake has been Faith No More’s specialty since its earliest days.
“That was a weird song — if you listen to the whole album, it doesn’t sound like any of the other songs. Which is cool,” says bassist Bill Gould in a telephone interview. “It was the first thing we finished; we mixed it in the rehearsal room, and we were like, ‘Well, let’s just put it out!’ And people [reacted], ‘What . . . is this?’ But it was good; I figured if they could go with us on that one, because it’s a departure from what people thought of our stuff before, then we had a good thing going for sure.”
Faith No More became known to MTV audiences and rock audiences in the early ’90s, right when hard rock and the left-of-the-dial sounds known loosely as “alternative” were beginning to commingle. Their breakthrough hit “Epic” — which features Patton rapping, a thundering guitar solo, and an elegiac piano outro — established the band as one willing to throw a lot of musical elements at the proverbial wall
Through the albums that followed, Faith No More took a lot of left turns — the portrait of a grumbling lout “R.V.,” the churning “Last Cup of Sorrow,” the smoothed-out “Evidence.” The band broke up in 1998, but while members worked on different projects over the next 10 years, interest in seeing them reform for shows remained high among devotees.
“Most bands can be shoehorned into some conventional rock narrative, but not Faith No More,” says Stephen Thomas Erlewine, senior editor at Rovi. “They had their big hit before alt-rock broke big and during the peak of grunge, they got even weirder — and they started out as plenty strange. I think that’s why they still have such a strong cult: They always followed their own path.”
When Faith No More got back together for a few shows in the late 2000s, the plan was just to tour behind its back catalog, although the band eventually did sneak a new track into its set lists. “We did the song ‘Matador,’ and that was fine, that was pleasant — we didn’t even tell anyone it was a new song,” recalls Gould. Committing to making an album, however, was another story — until the members realized that they could just put their heads down and get it done without telling anyone.
“I just started working with the drummer [Mike Bordin] a little bit, writing stuff down,” says Gould. “People kind of realized you didn’t have to tell anybody we were doing it — we could just work. It took the outside pressure off of it, and we could just make music like people. There are these rules — ‘This is how you have to do it.’ ‘You’re getting back together; you have to make an album to capitalize on your tour.’ There are a lot of things that people have to do that I don’t think you actually have to do. I think what you have to do is remember that you’re doing this because you like to make music, and not for the payoff, or for the business side of things. I think if we looked at it [the latter] way, we wouldn’t have made the record that we made.”
That record, which comes out in the US on May 18, is hard to describe without getting self-referential. Faith No More’s rearranging of musical ideas is clearly the product of its members’ minds working together in idiosyncratic ways, and “Sol Invictus” continues down that path, from the way “Sunny Side Up” melds together Patton’s ceiling-scraping yawp and Jon Hudson’s hip-shaking funk guitar to the charging drums, glittering keyboards (played by Roddy Bottum), and backing bellows of “Superhero.” It’s not the type of “reunion record” that tries to retrace steps previously trod by the band; it’s more of a reclamation of space.
“We’re not really in any kind of category, necessarily — we don’t really even know what we are,” Gould says with a laugh. “But now, it’s been around for 20-something years, and people say, ‘Oh, Faith No More, this is what they do.’ Back then, we did ‘The Real Thing’ and we were this funk-metal band, and then we did ‘Angel Dust,’ and people were like, ‘What? Why are they breaking their own formula that was working for them?’ — whatever that formula was. But now people take us at face value, and thank God for that.”
Maura Johnston can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.