Atheist is a Progressive Death Metal band from Sarasota, Florida. Indeed, a pretty good argument could be made that they are the Prog Death band. In a sub-genre obsessed with brutality and authenticity, it may be surprising that one of the most acclaimed bands is a difficult, jazz-influenced band, but nevertheless, Atheist is one of the few bands that is regarded by almost all metalheads as genuinely great.
Atheist formed in 1984, first as Oblivion, and later as R.A.V.A.G.E. At this point their sound had a great deal more in common with Thrash Metal than Death Metal, which didn't even really exist yet. Nevertheless, traces of their Jazz influence could still be found in the music of that era. They released their first album, Piece of Time, in 1990. By this point, they had established their signature style of Death Metal/Jazz Fusion. While they were critically acclaimed and highly influential, early audiences expected them to sound more like Cannibal Corpse, which they toured with at least once, and they were frequently booed by said audiences.
While they were recording their second album, Unquestionable Presence, their bassist, Roger Patterson, was killed in a car accident. While they had a number of demos already recorded, the album was far from complete, and they needed another bassist. They had no choice but to recruit Tony Choy, who had also worked with Cynic, in order to record this album. Widely regarded as a classic, both the original recordings and the new ones, Unquestionable Presence is arguably their best-received album, in which the Death Metal and Jazz influences were roughly equal.
Before finally breaking up in 1993, Atheist recorded one last album for contractual purposes. Elements, released in 1993, was perhaps even more important to Progressive Death Metal than their previous albums. Released alongside Death's Individual Thought Patterns and Cynic's Focus, it made 1993 a very good year for Tech Death. Upping the Jazz influence, it even contained an instrumental with no metal influence (Samba Briza), though it still managed to rock every bit as hard as anything before it. The band broke up after releasing it, by this point widely regarded as one of the finest Metal bands of their day, both by old-school purists and fans of the emerging technical / experimental genres that would develop during the '90s and beyond.
Lyrically, Atheist had little in common with their contemporaries, and anticipated many more contemplative Metal bands. By Unquestionable Presence, their lyrics looked to the future, to ethereal and esoteric imaginings no doubt influenced by marijuana. Elements, on the other hand, focuses on nature, and specifically, on descriptions of various so-called elemental forces, though not limited to traditional ones. In this respect, they are perhaps more similar to ambient Black Metal bands such as Wolves in the Throne Room or Drudkh, which deal quite often with nature, than they are to other Death Metal bands, which focus on gore and brutality far more than natural elements.
The band has gotten back together, and released a new album in 2010, called Jupiter. It's noticeably heavier than their older albums, but other than that, nothing's really changed. The band's fifth album has been in Development Hell for years; they announced it in 2014, and as of 2018, they're still working on it. Kelly Shaefer has confirmed that former bassist Tony Choy is returning for the new album, though he is apparently out as of 2018 (and was eventually replaced by Yoav Ruiz-Feingold in 2019), and Steve Flynn has also become largely unavailable for anything outside of recording. According to individual members, writing for a fifth full-length will begin in very early 2020, with a late fall 2020 release time currently on the table.
You can find their Bandcamp here.
Their Discography Includes:
- Rotting in Hell, (Demo) 1985
- On They Slay, (Demo) 1987
- Hell Hath No Mercy (Demo) 1987
- Piece of Time, 1990
- Unquestionable Presence, 1991
- Elements, 1993
- Jupiter, 2010
Not to be confused with, well, Atheism.
Atheist provides the following trope examples:
- Absentee Actor: Steve Flynn is this as of the late 2010s, as, by Kelly's own admission, he absolutely hates touring and the road. When Kelly wanted to start touring again and Steve predictably said "no thanks", the decision was made to bring Anthony Medaglia on board as their live drummer.
- Author Appeal: Aside from nature, Atheist generally loves transcendental lyrics that focus on life, the universe, and everything, with "Enthralled in Essence" being a good example.
- Contemptible Cover: While the covers have aged well, most of the band photos (including the one at the top) are better suited to a Hair Metal band than any death metal band.
- Their contemporary photos are still generally the subject of mockery as well due to Kelly currently bearing a more-than-passing resemblance to Bret Michaels.
- Greatest Hits Album: They released one via Bandcamp in 2017.
- Green Aesop: While most of their nature songs avert this, "Mother Man" plays it straight, which is a bit odd for death metal.
- "Mineral" is also a possible example dealing with humanity's abuse of natural resources (particularly fossil fuels).
- Instrumental: There are four brief instrumental pieces on Elements: "Samba Briza", "Displacement", "Fractal Point", and "See You Again".
- Lead Bassist: Roger Patterson and Tony Choy, both Types A and C. Roger's basswork in particular was one of the things that defined their early sound, and quite a bit of their early buzz revolved around Roger's incredible speed, technical proficiency, and creativity.
- Loudness War: Jupiter was a particularly egregious example of this; while Jason Suecof, who produced it, is notorious for this in general, this is a special case. Word on the street was that he was going for a "raw" production; his idea of one involved horribly inconsistent instrument levels that varied from song to song, leading to such wonderful things as the rhythm guitar track almost completely drowning out the lead. To add insult to injury, the bass, one of the chief elements of Atheist's sound, was almost COMPLETELY inaudible. Oh, and the whole thing was brickwalled to Death Magnetic levels. Jupiter as a whole was fairly divisive, but one thing that everyone agreed on was that the production was inexcusably awful. Sadly, Suecof will apparently be producing their upcoming album as well, so we can expect another round of this.
- Miniscule Rocking:
- The four instrumentals on Elements, listed in full above. "Samba Briza", the longest of them, still fits this trope at 1:58. The shortest, "Fractal Point", is 44 seconds long.
- Also, on a broader level, their albums are mostly quite short, with only Elements even topping the thirty-three minute mark (it's 41:38), though this is nothing unusual for tech death. The first three have bonus tracks on the 2005 Relapse remasters that bump their running times up to over an hour each, though. Overall, most of their songs are in the three to five-minute range, which doesn't qualify for this trope, but is fairly short for tech death standards. "Air" and "Elements", both 5:35, are their longest songs.
- Mohs Scale of Rock and Metal Hardness: Either a hard 9 or a soft 10. Interestingly, Piece of Time and Jupiter are probably a bit heavier than Unquestionable Presence and Elements, which hasn't stopped Unquestionable Presence from being their most acclaimed album.
- Motor Mouth: "Life".
- Neoclassical Punk Zydeco Rockabilly: Combines elements of death, thrash, progressive rock, jazz fusion, funk, salsa, and son cubano. Amongst other things. "Earth" even drops in a little bit of electronic music influence for a few bars. This can also border on Genre Roulette at points, particularly on Elements, which has four interstitial instrumentals that have basically nothing to do with metal.
- Pintsized Powerhouse: Yoav Ruiz-Feingold.
- Religion Rant Song: "No Truth", "Fraudulent Cloth", "Faux King Christ". Really, what did you expect considering the band's name?
- It's worth noting, however, that their lyrics often suggest a belief in paganism or pantheism rather than actual atheism.
- The Sixth Ranger: Anthony Medaglia. While Steve Flynn is still their official drummer, he almost never plays shows with the band, and Anthony is their go-to for touring. He is also very good friends with Dan Martinez de Campo and Yoav Ruiz-Feingold (the latter of whom he has played in another band with for a while), who both pushed for him to get the job; in short, Anthony is basically the sixth member of Atheist.
- Special Guest: Sean Martinez, Joey Muha, and Anthony Medaglia were or are strictly live session members.
- Technical Death Metal: One of the first bands of the genre, possibly the first.
- Thrash Metal: Piece of Time contained enough thrash to be considered a death/thrash album as opposed to their later material.
- Trope Maker: For Technical Death Metal, alongside Cynic, Death, and Nocturnus. Piece of Time is also a candidate for Ur-Example given its heavy Thrash Metal influence, which was less pronounced on future albums.
- Uncommon Time - Roughly once a song. This is one of the reasons some people have classed them as progressive metal in addition to technical death metal.
- Viewers Are Geniuses - In order to even begin to understand what Atheist plays, one would need a working knowledge of Thrash Metal, jazz, Progressive Rock, funk, and Latin music. Try listening to "Mother Man" from Unquestionable Presence, for example.
- Vocal Evolution: Kelly Shaefer's scream actually got less intense as they moved away from thrash metal on Unquestionable Presence and Elements. This more or less coincided with the increased jazz influence on those albums.