The Mike Patton Corner: Faith No More’s Album Of The Year
As someone who’s been a semi-semi-professional music journalist for close to a decade, I feel confident in saying that critical acclaim is quite overrated. It doesn’t matter how much praise a film, album, TV show, or novel receives upon initial release; it is ultimately the audience that decides whether something holds up, which is why oftentimes art that was panned in its time ends up being infinitely more culturally relevant than the critical darlings of its day. This is not to say that 1997’s Album of the Year, the Patton-fronted Faith No More’s fourth and, until recently, final record, has necessarily become a cultural touchstone, but time has somewhat vindicated it as being an underrated release. Pitchfork completely dismissed the album, giving it a score of 2.7/10 and concluding in their 3-paragraph review, “Album Of The Year leaves one feeling like waking up and finding last night’s used condom — sure, the ride was fun while it lasted, but what remains is just plain icky. And you definitely don’t want it in your CD player.” Rolling Stone were no kinder, saying the band were, “floundering around desperately, groping for a sense of identity and direction in a decade that clearly finds them irrelevant.” It’s almost laughable to think of Faith No More being called “irrelevant” when bands who were inarguably their disciples were starting to make waves on the charts, including Limp Bizkit, whom the band had the displeasure of performing with while promoting this album.
Not all reviews were so negative, but the consensus was that Faith No More were not at the top of their game. Is this true? Perhaps, but it’s hard to blame them considering the fact that most of the members were so involved in other projects they’d practically scattered to the wind. Indeed, the band do sound pretty exhausted on this record; many of the songs are far more mid-tempo and contemplative than the band usually get. They were separated for huge periods of time, with only weeks to write and record in between, and the result was by far their moodiest album yet. Considering the fact that some of Patton’s most experimental releases were coming out during the mid-90’s, it’s odd how toned down Faith No More’s eccentricities seem to be on AOTY, and that may have contributed to its poor reception. But don’t listen to the critics, listen to me, an aspiring Mike Patton expert: This album is not that bad.
As usual, the band come screaming out of the gate (literally) on the first song, Collision. Once again utilizing loud-quiet-loud dynamics, Patton belts the chorus as the growling bass adds punch to new guitarist John Hudson’s crushing riffs. Though lyrically sparse, the song seems to be very directly about the car accident the band suffered in 1994, which shattered Patton’s leg and injured his spine. The song suddenly kicks into high gear as Patton screams:
Head on, head on, head on/
I need a/
Head on, a head on, a head on/
I’ve really come to enjoy this song upon many listens, the band know how to build tension with odd time signatures and explode into an enthralling hook, and Patton’s vocals are as fantastically intense as ever. Over time, Faith No More’s opening tracks grew increasingly aggressive, and while this track is more dynamic than Get Out, its heavy parts are heavier, if only for being less punky and more sludgy. As with the rest of the album, Puff Bordin’s drumming is solid as a rock throughout the song’s multiple changes, and Patton’s commanding vocals duel towards the end with his desperate, overdubbed cries. While the album doesn’t keep up the fierce momentum this song builds going forward, it’s further proof that blowout openers are one of Faith No More’s specialties.
Perhaps part of the reason critics saw this album as the band grasping at relevance was that they experimented with some trendier sounds. Fans of FNM know that playing with genre is just part of their ethos, and it’s no surprise that they’d be interested in messing around with the more cutting-edge ideas of the mid-to-late 90’s. That’s what led them to write Stripsearch, the final single and one of the album’s most popular and enduring songs, which marked Mike Patton’s first foray into trip-hop (a sound he would explore further on his highly collaborative solo project Peeping Tom). Indeed, the band were known fans of Portishead judging from the famous live footage of them performing their classic song Glory Box, something which prompted fans to go online and ask, “What’s the Faith No More song where Mike Patton says ‘I just wanna be a woman?’” The song opens with the type of serene, ethereal strings and hip-hop drumbeat you’d expect from this genre, with a slick and catchy effects-heavy guitar lick, and even when the song gets heavier after the intro, it maintains its steady groove throughout. The space rock guitars and orchestral synths give this song a mood unlike any in the band’s catalog, and though it’s not one of their more adrenaline-fueled ragers, its groove is meditative enough to create a hypnotic effect, even when the metal guitars come in for the dramatic coda. The effect of Patton singing a lone background vocal over the verse is an interesting dynamic, but though this song is a cool experiment, its vibe is probably its greatest strength, and its greatest weakness is being slightly too long.
Next is another mid-tempo cut, the slightly darker Last Cup of Sorrow, a song whose opening riff is accented by what sounds like wind chimes. On a surface level, the lyrics deal with the shortness of life, with Patton musing in the first verse:
“This is getting old, and so are you/
Everything you know and ever knew/
Will run through your fingers just like sand/
Enjoy it while you can”
Seeing how Patton is famous for being in a large number of bands who only seem to make about four or five albums each, and taking into account the events of the next year or so, this seems to me like one of those songs that’s secretly about the band’s dysfunction, especially considering the direct reference in the pre-chorus to the Mr. Bungle demo track Bloody Mary:
“Raise it up and let’s propose a toast/
To the thing that hurts you most”
The groove is very heavy and physical during the verses, and the chorus soars almost halfheartedly, like a bird with a broken wing. It’s catchy, but despite the tone matching the lyrical themes of misery and “swallowing your sorrow,” it lacks some of the passion and kinetic energy that makes my favorite Faith No More songs stand out. I wouldn’t call it overlong, and I do like the chorus, but it’s one of many slow-burners on an album that, in general, could have used a bit more variety.
As an artist, Mike Patton was ahead of his time in many ways, often with musical and compositional ideas, but sometimes with song topics. He had to have been one of the only people in the mid-90’s to write a heavy metal song about email, a topic he explores on the track Naked In Front Of The Computer, which is, as of me writing this, the only Faith No More song entirely composed by Mike Patton. A tight two-minuter, the track starts with an almost surf rock-esque ascending and descending riff, before bursting to life and transitioning into an energetic verse with Patton hardcore-yelling about the emptiness of online communication that’s fueled by nothing more than convenience. Being one of the faster tracks, it definitely sticks out as far as the performances, and though it’s very short, it’s one of the more impactful moments. It’s a pretty meat-and-potatoes hard rock song, but the foresight in the lyrics is not to be overlooked, and it’s great to hear the band working as the well-oiled machine that can be heard on their previous efforts.
On Helpless, we get the album’s first ballad, another lethargic and slightly overlong song about general feelings of despair. I don’t hate this song, but I think it doesn’t play to the band’s strengths at all. It’s kind of humorless, lacks energy, it’s not very catchy, and it’s terribly indistinct. The band have done so much with so little on previous ballads, but despite the different sections and adult contemporary electric guitar on the hooks, this track is seriously deficient in passion, save for the last 20 seconds which fades out into Mike Patton’s repeated, pleading screams of “HEEELP!” The song is just too repetitive to justify its length, and the big loud drums don’t give this track heft as much as they just lead to it becoming plodding (there’s that word again).
We then get one of the best songs on the album, Mouth To Mouth, a groove metal song with a middle eastern-sounding keyboard riff that features one of the album’s catchiest and most ear-grabbing vocal rhythms on the verse. Again, I suspect this song may be about the band breaking up, with Patton yelling on the hook:
“I can dress up the dead man/
But I can’t bring him back to life”
While a number of the songs on this album drag a bit despite clocking in at under 5 minutes, the energy of this song is so infectious it makes almost four minutes absolutely fly by. Despite the lyrical themes, this is one of the best examples of the band sounding like they’re having fun, and Roddy Bottum’s playing being at the forefront does a lot for this song’s dynamics. He even gets an alien organ solo towards the track’s middle, and Patton gives one of his best performances, his cries of “AH-HEYYYY” one of the album’s more memorable hooks. Whatever this song has, this album probably needed more of it.
The next track, Ashes To Ashes, opens with a sassy little guitar riff before transitioning into the low-key verse. Another one of this album’s best-loved songs, Patton can be heard using a number of different voices like on the band’s best tracks, and you can hear the conviction in every member’s performance as they push the song along. This is a very well-built track, with enough hooks, distinct sections, and catchy qualities to keep it interesting throughout, and was definitely a good pick for a single. Many people suspect this to be yet another song about the band breaking up, with Patton singing about a bittersweet but fond farewell, his emotional performance selling the track’s poetic lyrics. In Pitchfork’s review for AOTY, the writer described their last album, King for a Day, as being “just plain awesome” (which is honestly refreshing, given that modern Pitchfork reviews seem like they’re written with the intent to boost traffic to Dictionary.com), and Ashes To Ashes is one of the album’s awesomest songs, capturing what was great about the band in their prime while also working as a wonderful sendoff to a golden era that was clearly at an end.
After that is She Loves Me Not, a breezy, lounge-inspired R&B ballad that features one of the album’s best vocal performances. The band saw international success from covering a Commodores song, so this sounds like their attempt at writing one, and it goes over pretty damn well. Billy Gould’s bass on this track is one of the funnest things to listen to on this whole album, as is the chorus of whispered Patton vocals underneath his crooning. The lyrics deal with waiting for someone to love you when they never truly will…essentially the narrator is a simp. Many great R&B songs have been written about simping, being pathetically devoted to the object of your unrequited love, and this is no exception. The melodies are super sweet and catchy, the groove swings playfully, and again, it’s got one of the best bass performances of any Faith No More song, further continuing the stretch of fantastic tracks in the middle of the album.
Speaking of fantastic tracks, the band explode into more throttling hard rock on Got That Feeling, probably the album’s only track about feeling fucking amazing. For a group known for injecting their songs with frantic energy, this one really stands out, and the wild vibe sounds like the band were taking something a lot stronger than coffee, especially during Patton’s repeated chants of “get it,” underneath which he unleashes the album’s craziest screams. One of the reasons this album suffers is that, similar to The Real Thing, Patton comes off as a less captivating and versatile vocalist than on his best projects. I mean, a C+ performance from Mike Patton is still an A compared to most people, but his ghastly shrieks and paint-peeling screams are among the most standout moments from Faith No More’s best records, and they’re largely absent from this one. That being said, this is the album’s most blood-pumping track, and you can feel the fire in your own belly when Patton belts “I can’t stop winning!” Like Naked In Front Of The Computer, it’s a two-minute track that packs a huge punch, and Patton’s vocals are the star of the show.
Next is the slow-burning Paths of Glory, a track which somehow embodies a number of both the positive and negative qualities of this album. On one hand, the song builds to a pretty heavy and enthralling bridge, with bludgeoning guitars and booming drums. On the other hand, the band doesn’t build up enough excitement in the first three minutes to make the ending feel cathartic, and it just sort of fizzles out. One confusing Achilles’ Heel of this album is that though the band seem to want to experiment with heavier and more brutal songwriting, they’re way more beholden to traditional song structures than ever before. For example, their famously “plodding” song from Angel Dust, Smaller and Smaller, is structured thusly: Intro -> Verse -> Chorus -> Post-Chorus -> Chorus -> Bridge -> Guitar Solo -> Chorus -> Coda. That’s a bizarre way to structure a metal song, but the emotional and musical arc of the track is masterfully executed and all the momentum is paid off. Paths of Glory has a much more typical structure, and it works to the detriment of what it’s trying to do during the bridge. The band explode into the final chorus sounding barely more intense than in choruses before, and compared to his screams of “AGAIN, AGAIN, AGAIN,” in the bridge, Patton doesn’t keep up the energy when he transitions to the hook. If they wanted to write a heavier kind of song, they should have played to their strengths and fucked with the structure, but instead this song ends up feeling like fat that could have been trimmed.
One of the weirder moments in the album is the surprisingly bluesy and psychedelic Home Sick Home, another short song that features a swing beat, fuzz bass, and some quirky, minor-key blues riffs. Though the lyrics are super simple and somewhat inane, Patton’s smooth baritone narrates the track with his signature villainy before ramping up to intense shouting during the raucous bridge. Though it’s probably the least impactful of the shorter songs, and I think I would’ve liked to be a little longer, it’s much more engaging and satisfying than the worst tracks.
On Pristina, the album’s final track, the band engage in what could generously be called a drone metal experiment, with the main idea being milking the heaviness out of a single, repeated guitar chord. The keys and bass eventually have some chord changes, but the sparse drumming and guitars that ring out and become feedback make this one of the more monstrous, huge-sounding cuts. The band find a lot of power in this song’s simplicity, and the repetition works to its advantage, making it arguably more hypnotic than Stripsearch. Where most of their album closers are lighter, more crowd-pleasing moments, this one is much darker and heavier; it’s the sound of Patton, Gould, Bordin, Bottum, and Hudson standing around solemnly as Faith No More is lowered into its grave.
When all is said and done, this album is not the disaster that critics, or even Patton himself thought it was. Patton was famously quoted citing the album as the reason for their breakup, saying, “…we were starting to make bad music. And that’s when you need to pull the plug. Our next record would have been a piece of shit.” It’s no surprise that he wasn’t impressed with it, as many of his projects between 1997 and that 2001 interview were far more adventurous and ambitious, but overall I think most of the songs on this album are decent-to-great, and I wouldn’t mind hearing some of them if and when I finally see them at one of their rescheduled tour dates. As a side note, I discovered well into my writing process for this review that I was listening to the Japanese version of the album with the two bonus tracks, which are both also pretty good, especially Big Kahuna. I think everyone was a bit too harsh on this release, which has slowly grown on me after listening to it a number of times. There are a couple duds, and I think I would rather listen to their other albums, but Album Of The Year is certainly much better than its reputation, even if it doesn’t live up to its title.
I give Faith No More’s Album Of The Year a respectable 6.5/10
Best Songs: Mouth to Mouth, Ashes To Ashes, She Loves Me Not