Unholy Divers: Atheist

unholy divers atheist band

Welcome to the first edition of Unholy Divers, a new series here at Nine Circles where we immerse ourselves in the discographies of bands we should be more familiar with, but for whatever reasons, just aren’t.

Admit it: we’ve all had those conversations with other metalheads where we pretend to be experts on a band – you know, because metal cred, guys – but actually know next to nothing about them. (Okay, this isn’t just a metal-specific occurrence.) You know how it goes – lots of “oh, yeah,” and “definitely, dude,” but hardly any actual knowledge of the artist or their music. With the wealth of music available to us, it’s just bound to happen; nobody can possibly listen to everything. (Except maybe the human encyclopedias over at Last Rites.)

Unholy Divers is our attempt to close these knowledge gaps. Each time out, we’ll take a deep dive (ha-ha) into a different band’s catalogue – studio albums, EPs, singles, splits, you name it – and hopefully give ourselves a better sense of what exactly the cool kids have been talking about for all these years. And then, we’ll write about it.

So without any further ado, let’s jump into our first band… 

Atheist

atheist band photo

Renowned for its contributions to the technical death metal landscape, Atheist traces its history back to 1984. Frontman Kelly Shaefer and drummer Steve Flynn founded the band in Sarasota, Florida under the name Oblivion, then re-dubbed it R.A.V.A.G.E. (“Raging Atheists Vowing a Gory End”) before finally settling on their current moniker in 1988. Tragedy struck in 1991, when original bassist Roger Patterson was killed in a car accident. Patterson was replaced by Tony Choy, and the band released its landmark sophomore album, Unquestionable Presence, before breaking up the following year. After a brief reunion that yielded a new album, the band broke up again in 1994.

Twelve years later, the band (minus guitarist Rand Burkey) reunited for a series of live appearances, and released a new album, Jupiter, in 2010. While reports emerged in 2014 that the band was preparing its fifth album, the metal world has yet to see the fruits of that labor…

Lineup:

  • Vocals – Kelly Shaefer
  • Guitar – Jason Holloway
  • Guitar – Chris Martin
  • Bass – Tony Choy
  • Drums – Steve Flynn

Discography:

Four albums to date, including…

  • Piece of Time, 1989
  • Unquestionable Presence, 1991
  • Elements, 1993
  • Jupiter, 2010

Author’s Exposure Prior to Unholy Dive:

None. I’m fully aware of the degree of sacrilege inherent in such an omission.

Piece of Time, 1989

atheist piece of time

So, Piece of Time is pretty damn good — both as debut albums go and just…in general. Built on a combination of precise, intricate riffage and death metal primality, it established a solid footing for the band in the extreme metal world. And while Atheist would later come to be known more for the former, it’s interesting how the latter clearly seems to be the moneymaker this first time out.

Much of Piece plays like the proto-tech record it is: with the band throwing angular riffs, time changes, and other genre calling cards your way in spades. And it does these pretty well! Still, it’s the less calculated, more balls-to-the-wall moments throughout that feel like the record’s most genuinely exhilarating ones. The closing portion of the titular opener. The verses of “Beyond.” The entirety of “Why Bother?” The technical elements are undoubtedly tucked in there, but they’re used largely to enhance the band’s sound rather than define it — which allows those more chaotic elements to steal the spotlight.

The exception is “I Deny.” Stuck right in the middle of the album, it’s the clearest bit of foresight into the band’s future trajectory — one that tips the seesaw back in favor of their more progressive, experimental tendencies. Yet crucially, in keeping with the rest of the record, it’s still only four minutes long. It’s an appetizer portion of future brilliance, rather than a main course of interminable wankery — which you’d be forgiven for expecting from the tech-death genre.

It’s clear throughout Piece that the band is reaching for something bigger — still trying to fit all the right pegs in the right holes, if you will — yet that doesn’t take away from its enjoyability in the moment. The worst thing I can say about it is that it’s not as good as what’d come next. The best thing I can say? It’s still friggin’ brilliant.

Unquestionable Presence, 1991

atheist unquestionable presence album cover

Now, this thing. On my first listen after finishing up with Piece of Time, I had to check and make sure this was even the same band. (Another thing I did on my first listen? Realized that all the metal folks were 100% right about how goddamn essential Unquestionable Presence is.)

I’m not sure I can think of a greater album-to-album leap than the one Atheist pulled off here. Many of the key ingredients are still in play — Kelly Shaefer’s deranged growl, Roger Patterson’s lead-oriented bass lines (fully written before his tragic passing), a taut, 30-odd-minute run time, etc. — but the band channels them into a completely different animal. One with production dynamics, jazzy elements, and a more enthusiastic embrace — nay, a complete goddamn bear hug — of that technical side to the band’s sound.

And you know what? Even with those wholesale changes, Scott Burns still absolutely nailed the production. (Aside from the weird echo effect on Shaefer’s vocals during the early parts of the title track. What…is that? WHY is that?) Overall, Presence is thinner and more polished than Piece did, but it also kind of needed to be — what with those things the kids call “clean guitar parts” and all. By removing some of the heft and sanding down those edges, Burns created a sound where the clean and dirty parts complement each other seamlessly. It’s a big part of why the record is as listenable as it is, even a quarter century after its release.

The other part? The songs themselves. It’s pretty impressive that Atheist could launch themselves that far into creative orbit, yet still come out with eight tunes this good. As good an opener as “Piece of Time” was last time out, “Mother Man” eclipses it handily with its harmonized leads and absolutely infectious early groove part. Any guitar junkies reading? The middle section of “Your Life’s Retribution” boasts one of the most furious lead attacks the band’s ever given us — a masterclass of both melodicism and technicality. “An Incarnation’s Dream,” “And the Psychic Saw”… you could pick any one of these eight songs as your favorite on the album and I’d be like “oh yeah, I can see that.”

Normally I’m wary of being ordered to listen to something or told unequivocally that I’ll love it. That kinda shit’s gone wrong for me so many times, on everything from The Velvet Underground to The Body, plus…I dunno, I kind of enjoy discovering stuff on my own time. (Or not doing so, I guess.) But I’m about to break my own rule, because Unquestionable Presence fully lived up to everything everyone’s told me about it. It’s the sound of a band at the absolute peak of their power, doing wonderful and brilliant things with their music.

So, yeah…if you haven’t done so already, listen to it. I don’t break rules lightly.

Elements, 1993

atheist elements album cover

Dammit, Atheist. Why’d you have to go ruin a legitimately awesome piece of cover art with that horrendous title font? That yellow, military-like text will never not be the first thing my eyes go to — and will also never not be a giant eyesore. Anyway, I digress.

So…I did like Elements, but in a lot of ways, it’s kind of a mess. Following up Unquestionable Presence was never going to be easy, but at times, this feels less like a serious attempt to do so and more like an about-face. The production, to put it gently, takes some getting used to. To put it less gently, it’s atrocious — particularly given Scott Burns’ stellar work on the band’s first two records. Each song oozes through with a thick, muddy coat that effectively neutralizes the band’s immense musicianship. Further, four of the album’s 12 tracks are instrumental interludes, which, while occasionally interesting on their own, ultimately accomplish little beyond disrupting the band’s momentum.

But beyond that, for much of the first half of the album, Atheist simply seems to have forgotten how to have fun. The band’s musicianship is as sterling as ever — deny this at your peril — but on songs like “Green” and “Air” they seem to be simply going through their winding, syncopated motions without really enjoying the music they’re making. As a result, both songs get a bit draggy. “Animal” finally takes a baby step in the right direction, but still feels like a bit of a slog. (Really, the only unequivocal success among the album’s first several tracks is “Water,” which I’ll go to bat for any day of the week. That thing kicks an ass.)

Thankfully, Elements goes out on a relative high with its final three real songs. (Sorry not sorry, interludes) The band finally throws us a bone on “Fire,” introducing a groove-oriented section reminiscent of “Mother Man.” Maybe, you think, just maybe they’re back. Then, “Earth” takes the baton and runs with a terrific, groove-laden refrain of its own, leading us into yet another refrain the titular closing track. Admittedly, “Elements” is probably the weakest of these closing bangers. The song alternates between standard-issue Atheist noodling sections and more melodic, chord-driven passages that almost give off a vaguely ’80s-Rush vibe. At nearly six minutes, it’s a bit longer than it needs to be, but still a vast improvement over its counterparts at the beginning of the album.

In the end, I have to rank Elements a clear third behind Presence and Piece. It’s the product of a band who broke up, then reunited (minus drummer Steve Flynn) and quickly cobbled together an album to fulfill their recording contract — and for the most part, it sounds like exactly that. Still, it’s not without its merits, and those three elementally-themed tracks alone make it worth the time.

Jupiter, 2010

atheist jupiter album cover

The success rate for high-profile reunion albums has to be, what…like, one in 20? And I’m sorry to say, Jupiter ain’t one of ’em. It’s not a terrible record, just an incredibly underwhelming one. It’s void of — or at least in severely short supply of — so many things that made this band great. It might have been a passable release from a younger, less storied band, but from Atheist it’s little more than an obvious weak link in their discography.

Jupiter does get a thing or two right. Sonically, it’s actually listenable, which is a nice change from Elements. New bassist Jonathan Thompson appears to have gotten the Jason Newsted / …And Justice for All treatment, as his lines aren’t nearly loud enough in the mix. (Though to be fair, the songwriting this time out doesn’t offer nearly as many opportunities for his bass to shine as Patterson or Choy had in the past.) Whatever…by and large, the album sounds decent.

Beyond that, songs like “Faux King Christ” (stupid title aside) and “Third Person” are decently catchy. The newly-returned Steve Flynn still sounds like a madman behind the kit, because Steve Flynn will always sound like a madman behind the kit. The guitar parts — while a bit more pedestrian than we’re used to, and pretty much always stuck on overdrive — are decent. Kelly Shaefer sounds fine. (If it sounds like I’m grasping at straws, well…I am.)

Honestly, most of the parts of the Atheist equation are still there, (whither Tony?) but for the first time, they don’t seem collectively to be pulling their weight toward the end product. Elements may not have been more than the sum of its parts, but Jupiter is actively less than that sum. It’s got no sense of dynamics, nor any of the frenetic unpredictability that endeared people to the band in the first place. (“Third Person” at least attempts to bring that feel back, but it’s so little and so late that it feels like haphazard fan service.)

For their occasional flaws (**cough** Elements **cough**) Atheist’s previous albums feel like they were made to blow your mind — stylistically, compositionally and otherwise. This one, on the other hand, just feels like it’s here to hit you with a generic tech-death club and peace out. Which is exactly what I did after listening through it.

Final Thoughts:

Despite closing on a bit of a bum note, my trip through Atheist’s discography was a pretty damn rewarding one. For all their differences, Piece of Time and Unquestionable Presence are as solid a 1-2 punch as I can think of to open a death metal career. More than a quarter century since their original release, they’re still exhilarating as all hell. (Elements, as I mentioned, also has its moments, but those first two are the ones you’re really here for.)

Also, this might seem like an obvious statement, but…good lord, do these guys have chops. Flynn’s one of the genre’s most creative drummers. Shaefer and Burkey, for all their technical ability, almost impressed me more for how seamlessly they’d jump from dirty to clean and back. It’s effortless, and it’s wonderful. That they had Patterson and Choy back-to-back on bass suggests the band made some sort of deal with the devil of low-end. (Thompson gets an “incomplete,” but hey! Choy’s back in the band anyway, so that doesn’t matter.)

Anyway, if you’re a noob like me and don’t know your Atheist, get on it. They’re well worth your time.

Album Rankings:

  1. Unquestionable Presence
  2. Piece of Time
  3. Elements
  4. Jupiter

That’ll do it for this edition of Unholy Divers. We’ll hopefully be back with more of these soon — assuming future editions don’t take two months to put together, like this one did. (Even if they do, there’ll probably be more, so hooray!) Stay tuned!

Keep it heavy,
Dan

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