Albums Revisited: Faith No More’s ‘Angel Dust’ Turns 25: FNM bit the hand that feeds on their groundbreaking 1992 release.
June 8th, 2017 marks the 25th anniversary of the release of Angel Dust, Faith No More’s genre-defying, gauntlet throwing follow-up to 1989’s platinum selling album The Real Thing.
Faith No More always had an antagonistic streak with their fans and their record label, and for anyone hoping for another smash hit like the rap-rock anthem Epic, they were shit out of luck.
It was their loss. For open-minded fans like myself, it would prove life-changing. It was pretty much the soundtrack for the summer of 1992 for me, never leaving my tape deck. The Angel Dust tour with Helmet still ranks as one of the best shows I’ve ever seen.
The closest the album came to Epic was the first single Midlife Crisis, but even that track subverted expectations. Vocalist Mike Patton’s rhythmic verses were more subdued, the song was less bombastic. Also gone was the bratty, nasal delivery he employed on The Real Thing–in its place was a more mature, full-throated croon.
Even in the era of alt-rock experimentation, Angel Dust stuck out like a sore thumb, and felt like a middle finger to convention, but to think it was merely reactionary would be a mistake–as bassist Billy Gould expanded upon in an interview: “I wouldn’t say it was an intentional ‘f— you. We really liked that record and we really put a lot of work into it. But I a lot of people didn’t get it, and we didn’t care. So in that respect we were like, ‘Well, yeah, f— you.’ But I don’t think that we wrote an album to say ‘f— you’ to anybody. We actually liked what we did.”
Angel Dust is one of the biggest artistic leaps any band has made at the peak of their success, so much so that it freaked out their record label, who according to producer Matt Wallace said the band should call the album “Commercial Suicide” and told them “We hope you guys didn’t buy any houses.”
Such is the case for trailblazers–the world wasn’t quite ready for Angel Dust, but like the drug that inspired its title, the havoc it wreaked upon the mind of anyone who heard it would eventually cement its legacy.
In many ways, its crazy quilt style shares a kinship to Mr. Bungle, Patton’s other musical outfit that switched multiple genres in one song at breakneck speed. His prankster approach seeped into the album, and made it the richer for it.
Angel Dust also expanded his lyrical modus operandi, eschewing autobiographical emoting for songs sung from perspectives of imaginary characters. This is a key component to the album’s broad scope. For example, the haunting Smaller and Smaller documents a farmer with failing crops, while the Tom Waits’ish RV focuses on an abusive alcoholic father in a trailer park.
The closest Patton comes to self-examination is the second single, the exotic anthem A Small Victory, sung from the perspective of his father, who coached him as a child.
Be Aggressive was the most eye-raising title, with Patton recounting a no-holds-barred tale of gay sex (with lyrics provided by openly gay keyboardist Roddy Bottum). Even at the height of alternative culture, this was groundbreaking. For any listener who found it threatening, that was their problem.
Malpractice is another high point, featuring Patton at his most disturbing, shrieking: The crowd roars/They ruined and repaired me/The rest you know/The hands removed the bad thing!
Patton explained its meaning in a 1992 interview: It’s about a lady who goes to a surgeon and she’s getting operated on and she realizes she likes the surgeon’s hand inside of her. She doesn’t even care about being cured, she just wants someone’s hands inside of her – she gets addicted to that.
The track is also a case in point for the wild stylistic shifts of the album, veering from grindcore metal to an ambient passage featuring a sample from the Kronos Quartet. Samples were a key component of Angel Dust, incorporating everything from Simon and Garfunkle to The Wizard of Oz. But even here the group flaunted convention, using samples for atmospheric texture than blatant hooks.
You can’t discuss Angel Dust’s sonic richness without giving producer Matt Wallace his due. He upped his game drastically from The Real Thing. He gave each song a cinematic sheen and widescreen ambiance (including the group’s cover of the theme from Midnight Cowboy).
Faith No More make a huge sound, and balancing Mike Bordin’s punishing percussion, Bottum’s atmospheric keyboards, Gould’s seismic bass, Jim Martin’s bludgeoning riffs and Patton’s six-octave range is no easy feat. He’s one of the most underrated producers of the era.
His relationship with Patton made a quantum leap as well–Angel Dust is notable for being the first album that showcased the full range of his vocal talents. While his work on The Real Thing shouldn’t be dismissed–his aforementioned nasal whine drove producer Wallace nuts.
Wallace expressed his relief with Patton’s new approach in an interview with All Music: I think he really came to the forefront of what he could do, which is to use his voice as an instrument, sing fully and deeply and use every spectrum of his vocal range, and that was really exciting.
Despite the creative firestorm that fueled Angel Dust, it still revolved around the group’s disparate influences and conflicting personalities, and the curmudgeonly Martin was not a fan of the new material. He was the odd man out, and reluctantly participated, recording his tracks separately from the group.
Even so, he left his stamp, from his rollicking riff on Caffeine to Crack Hitler’s blaxploitation guitar funk. And then there’s Jizzlobber, his crowning achievement. It’s a horror show of a tune with Martin providing gnarled, funereal riffage while Patton howls at his most unhinged. If Angel Dust would be Martin’s final contribution before he left the group, he certainly went out on a high note.
In many ways the group’s internal discord fueled their creativity–indeed the album is such a wide-ranging and conflicting listen–violent mood swings abound: it’s an album or absolute beauty and horrifying ugliness.
This dichotomy is also reflected in the album art, which features a beautifully photographed egret on the front cover and a cow head hanging from a meat hook on the back.
This extends to the provocative album title as well , of which Bottum said “summed up what [they] did perfectly: it’s a really beautiful name for a really hideous drug and that should make people think.”
Angel Dust went gold in America, but couldn’t match the commercial heights of The Real Thing. Many found it impenetrable and alienating. In the U.S. that is–Europe went mad for it.
The group didn’t help their fates at home when they would opened for the ill-fated joint tour of Guns N’Roses and Metallica. During their jaunt Patton took a dump in Axl Rose’s orange juice back stage. And during a performance he pissed in his own shoe and drank it. His combative, body fluid performance art freaked out his touring mates and casual fans, but it certainly left an impression.
Despite its initial lukewarm reception Angel Dust stands up admirably today, largely because it’s as unclassifiable now as it was then. It’s so singular, strange and uncompromising that there’s nothing to compare it too. I can still crank up Everything’s Ruined today and get goosebumps. I think I’ll do that right now in fact.
What are your favorite memories from ‘Angel Dust’? Tell me in the comments. You can order it from Amazon below.