The Anniversary

Angel Dust Turns 20

Faith No More’s Angel Dust was my first exposure to the very idea of the Difficult Follow-Up Album, and I’m guessing that thousands of other kids shared my experience. The album came three years after The Real Thing, the San Francisco band’s breakthrough. I’d bought The Real Thing on cassette with birthday gift-certificate money, and it pretty effectively blew my mind; I still consider it one of my favorite albums ever. That album gets a ton of credit and blame for helping to popularize rap-metal, but it was a lot more than that: An all-over-the-place idea-blast from a band who knew how to weld pop craftsmanship to thrash power. That album veered from quasi-Middle-Eastern orchestral churn (“Woodpecker From Mars”) to dementedly creepy lounge-singer irony (“Edge Of The World”) to all-out blitzkrieg (“Surprise! You’re Dead”), but the whole thing felt cohesive because the band remained in a thunderous groove throughout and because they always tossed in triumphant hooks like the synth-line on “Falling To Pieces.” To a 10-year-old me, this was unbelievably fearless and exciting music. It felt cool to like, which was a new thing for me. Around the time Angel Dust came out, I read interviews with Mike Patton in Circus and Hit Parader where he talked about how he wanted the new album to piss off old fans, and I remember being puzzled and a little bit annoyed that this band I loved would want to intentionally fuck with me like that. And when I finally heard Angel Dust, I couldn’t quite wrap my head around it. Truthfully, I’m still not sure I can.

Patton had joined Faith No More as a hired-gun vocalist when they were working on The Real Thing. He didn’t help write any of it, and his inclusion must’ve seemed like an actual commercial move when they hired him. Patton had (and has) pipes, and his gigantic welling-up wails greatly increased the scope of what Faith No More could do. Chuck Mosely, their previous singer, had been more of a sneery-barker type, whereas Patton seemed to exist on the same vocal plane as contemporaries like, say, Queensr├┐che’s Geoff Tate. But in between The Real Thing and Angel Dust, Patton went back to work with his high-school band Mr. Bungle and generally went full Zappa-splooge. Returning to the Faith No More ranks, he decided he wanted to get weird with it on the next album. It probably caused some dissent within the band (guitarist Jim Martin left soon after), but weird is what they got.

Faith No More used to get the “alternative metal” tag in the magazines I was just starting to read, but the form of stomp-rock iconoclasm that exists on Angel Dust was light-years removed from the grunge revolution that was happening elsewhere. Instead, it’s a dizzily omnivorous thing, one that delights in shoving listeners’ heads into its excesses. About 40 seconds into the juddering groove of opening track “Land Of Sunshine,” we hear stereopanning, multitracked, echoey evil laughter, one of the creepiest things I’d ever heard at that point. “Be Aggressive” has cheerleader chants. “Jizzlobber” ends in straight-up opera. The album’s final track is a cover of the impressionistic instrumental score from Midnight Cowboy, a movie I’d never heard of. With kickass first single “Midlife Crisis,” Faith No More found a way to land in the pop charts with a song that includes a line about “your menstruating heart” in its chorus. I had no idea what the fuck was going on with this thing.

But I also don’t want to oversell the album’s weirdness, since its prime power came from its overcharged groove, a groove even deeper than the one on The Real Thing. For all their ambitions, Faith No More weren’t afraid to be considered a metal band, and the rhythm section remains utterly locked-in throughout, remaining in primal-stomp mode and grounding the band’s flight of fancy. Keyboardist Roddy Bottum, meanwhile, would go onto make some pretty great Cars-informed power-pop as Imperial Teen’s frontman, and his gift for new-wave hooks is all over tracks like “Smaller And Smaller.” Listening to the album now, some of its further-out bits haven’t aged all that well; it might’ve been transgressive to call a song “Jizzlobber” then, but now it just seems goofy. But that groove and those hooks endure.

The band’s rap influence had decreased in the years since The Real Thing, but they developed a fascination with sampling that existed entirely outside that, and Angel Dust is full of record-scratches and snatches of outside music that don’t distract from the music but add to its atmospheric power instead. The entire beat for “Midlife Crisis,” it turns out, comes from the euphoric opening drum-ripples of Simon & Garfunkel’s “Cecilia” — the sort of thing that never would’ve occurred to me, but which explains all the deja vu the song gave me, and which I’ll now never be able to unhear. “Midlife Crisis” came with a furious stomp, the sort of thing that could still sound tough when placed next to the something like Pantera’s “Walk,” which had come out a few months before. And in the operatic trudge of Angel Dust, we can hear the beginnings of ideas that prog-informed metal bands like Tool and the Deftones would keep running with for years afterward.

By some glorious accident of fate, Faith No More ended up being the first band I’d ever see live. They opened up my first concert: The first night of the ill-fated Guns N’ Roses/Metallica co-headlining tour at D.C.’s RFK Stadium. Because the two headliners both played endless sets, Faith No More went on at 5:30 in the afternoon and didn’t get a whole lot of time. I don’t remember a whole lot about their set other than the upper-deck bird’s eye view of an entire sea of fists pumping in time to “Epic,” their closer. Also, maybe some stuff exploded? And maybe some dudes were moshing at the back of the stadium floor? It was a long time ago. But in retrospect, it’s pretty amazing that they were on that bill at all. Axl Rose had hoped to recruit Nirvana to open that tour, but Kurt Cobain didn’t approve of Axl’s lyrics about women, so it went to Faith No More instead. I was happy about that. I liked The Real Thing better than Nevermind — still do, matter of fact. (In Utero beats Angel Dust for me, but it’s close.) The show was just a couple of months after Angel Dust came out, so they were promoting an album this weird by playing stadiums, opening for arguably the two biggest bands on the face of the earth. Thinking back on it now, that is a small victory.

So: What memories do you guys associate with this album? Where does it fit with Faith No More’s history, or with the greater history of early-’90s rock? What’s your favorite song from it? And would you like to watch some videos for songs from the album? Because we’ve got some below.