"Smoke the weed, make the crazy metal."
Between songs at Santos Party House tonight, Atheist frontman Kelly Shaefer took a minute to shout out NYC: "Great people, great food…" "Great weed!" an audience member chimed in, and Shaefer ran with it. He described how he had smoked before the set and how he planned to afterward. Then he hit on the statement above: "Smoke the weed, make the crazy metal." A recipe of sorts. Is it really that easy? Is that where all this came from?
By "all this" I mean a seriously innovative band. Atheist's heyday was the early ’90s. They were part of the Florida death-metal scene that birthed such a scary amount of talent: Morbid Angel, Obituary, Cynic, Death, etc. I was into all that stuff growing up, but I never got around to Atheist. I checked them out a few years ago when Relapse reissued their first three full-lengths, but the recording quality of those albums (even with a fine remastering job by my friend Colin Marston) was a stumbling block for me—too muddy, not immediate enough. Sometimes you just can't hear a band through the intervening years.
But last year's reunion album, Jupiter, hit me really hard, and it brought the older records into focus for me. When I heard they were playing NYC, I was ecstatic. I wanted to hear what the new stuff would sound like alongside the old. I wanted to see if the manic energy of the albums would translate.
The show made me extremely happy. It really drove home the fact that Atheist as a band represents a kind of prog utopia. They play extreme metal but are fantastically unbounded by the style. The forces driving their music are sleek groove—gnarled and accelerated and chomping through change after change, but rooted in the cyclical and meditative—and a kind of relentless, even savage wonder and positivity. Kelly Shaefer has spoken about his pot-fueled lyric writing sessions, and that sort of "I see a universe in the palm of my hand" vibe pervades his songs. A very genuine kind of "Holy shit, I'm alive and I've got to process all these stimuli RIGHT NOW" sort of thing. Songs about alien visitation, about the enormity and awesomeness of nature. ("You call it god, I'll worship the sun / Without all her fire there won't be anyone," he sings in "Second to Sun"—streaming above—the first song on Jupiter and a definite highlight of tonight's set.) His stage presence reflects this—he headbangs plenty but he also spends a lot of time gyrating in a sort of grooved-out hippie dance, miming the contours of the songs in a graceful martial-artsy style.
Shaefer projects pure happiness and gratefulness between songs, and it was genuinely touching to see him walking back near the drum kit during the set to share energy with drummer Steve Flynn. The two worked together on Atheist's first two records (’89's Piece of Time and ’91's Unquestionable Presence) but then not again until Jupiter, which came in 2010. Before they began composing the latter, Shaefer posted the following online: "[I'm] heading to Atlanta next Friday to jam with ATHEIST drummer and my best friend Mr. Steve Flynn, this will mark the first time we have written together since 1991's 'Unquestionable Presence'. So I am curious how it will sound. I know it will be sick, there is a formula that me and Flynn have that automatically sounds like ATHEIST...so it will be fun to hear what it will sound like. And who knows? If it it goes well...?? We will see what happens." What can I say? I love this kind of camaraderie, and you can see it onstage. Flynn and Shaefer are the twin engines of the band: The former only drums live and the latter only sings, but they both compose guitar parts. It seems like an unusually collaborative process (or "formula," to use Shaefer's term), as Flynn partially explains here.
I didn't catch the names of the two live guitarists and the bassist (two of the three are apparently brand-new recruits), but they all sounded fantastic. This current Atheist incarnation (a ton of players have passed in and out of the band over the years, including bassist Roger Patterson, who died in a tragic tour-van accident in ’91) as a whole was incredibly tight and energetic, and they play with so much humanity. Thanks in large part to Flynn's deeply funky, fusion-ish beats—dig the woodblock! and the tasteful, totally non-default application of double-bass—the band never sounds like a machine, even when it's running a teched-out obstacle course. And live, the old material (some of the tracks played were "Unquestionable Presence," "Retribution," "On They Slay" and the almost Living Colour–ish groove monster "Mineral") blended beautifully with the new. As I noted in my TONY preview of the show, the Jupiter songs seem at once more spazzed-out and more catchy than the first-phase compositions. Live, pieces like "Live and Live Again" and "Faux King Christ" were a total blitz, rapid-fire sunbursts of tech worship. A lot of bands seem to want to dehumanize technical metal, to get as close as they can to the machine. Atheist puts the love back in. It's extremely soulful—not to mention fun—music, and that comes through intensely in their live show.
I kept thinking about Shaefer's weed remark: "Smoke the weed, make the crazy metal." Is it that simple? The explanation seems to gloss over the ingenious method that's at work here. ("…there is a formula that me and Flynn have," etc.) The method that lets you get outside the genre. Atheist use metal as their engine, but the chassis is all custom-built. There is nothing taken for granted in the music, least of all MOOD. Why can't metal be truly psychedelic? Not in the "Dude, let's get smoked out and see how Sabbathy we can sound" sense, but in the sense of let's get high and fucking DREAM some shit up—invent worlds. Atheist is music by and for dreamers. Born out of feverish, sweaty imagining. Shaefer, with his dudely vibe onstage, dancing through the labyrinths of these strange yet irresistible tunes. It's some kind of flower power, mixed with brotherly love. The angst is left out entirely. (Well, not entirely: The song "Fraudulent Cloth" is a deeply pissed anti-Catholic diatribe.) What you have is the pure exhilaration of the prog labyrinth. The point is that you don't even need weed anymore: the visions are all there in the sounds.
"Smoke the weed, make the crazy metal." Whatever takes you there, I say, just so long as you report back re: what you see and hear. It's not the pot cliché of glossing over the details; it's the opposite, a hyperobsession with the little nooks and crannies of the riff temples. For the like-minded few, that's bliss.