(The new album by The Faceless has generated heated discussion among metalheads, and now its our turn to wade into the fray with this review by DGR.)
It’s hard to believe that we’re four years removed from the last Faceless disc and we’re finally looking at a new one. For a while, the band’s habit of being incredibly quiet became something of a punchline for jackasses like myself, running stories about how there was either no one left in the band because everybody on the planet had quit or, more likely, everyone in California had been added to a list of persons to be moved into the band’s ranks when the next person departed.
Background drama aside though, you can’t argue with the fact that with Akeldama and Planetary Duality, The Faceless put out two incredible albums, so much so that they don’t feel like time capsules. I could listen to either one of those now and it would still sound as good as the day when I first heard it. That helped make the passage of time easier, for sure, so that even the elapse of four years between albums didn’t feel that bad (and we never reached Wintersun levels of delay). However, after taking their dear sweet goddamned time, The Faceless have finally managed to kick out another release called Autotheism, and without revealing too much too soon, man is it a bit of an oddball.
One of the first things people will likely realize when they fire up Autotheism is that this isn’t the same Faceless that they fell in love with. Across the space of only three discs, there’s been a revolving door of musicians, with Autotheism representing a massive lineup shift. Point being, there’s quite a bit of new blood in this particular iteration of the band and only two guys left from the days of Planetary Duality. While I’ll admit that I, too, was pretty hyped for anything with The Faceless’ brand on it after Planetary Duality, as we found ourselves more and more removed from their previous works and as more guys excused themselves from the lineup, my interest in the band changed more from when were they were going to put out another amazing disc to whether anything more would come, and to the even bigger question: what the hell was it going to sound like?
It probably can’t be overstated that the band influenced quite a lot of the current metal scene, and led to something of a rediscovery of tech-death as a genre among a younger crowd. I’ve been to shows where no fewer than four of the younger upstart bands had a guitarist wearing a Faceless shirt, pretty much broadcasting what their chosen genre was before playing the first note. So I figured from the get-go that once Autotheism started up with a small piano motif and orchestra (which makes constant appearances throughout Autotheism) before moving into a huge swath of clean vocals and slow melodic guitar parts that wouldn’t be too far removed from a prog-death band, quite a few people were going to be conflicted with this album, myself included.
Autotheism feels as if it was constructed in two phases, despite the fact that each song runs into the next, making the whole album a fluid listening experience. The first chunk is the titular “Autotheist Movement”, the parts of which bear the names of “Create”, “Emancipate”, and “Deconsecrate”. They lay the foundations of the disc in terms of both sound and overall philosophy, though both tend to feel just a little too familiar for their own good. The second chunk comes in the album’s back half. But before turning to the music, a few words about the album’s lyrical themes.
If you’ve been following The Faceless for a while, you will have noted that one of their favorite lyrical philosophies has been the deconstruction and denial of religion. Planetary Duality explored this in a different way, with its tale of an alien-like creator and the man who discovers them, than what Autotheism hopes to accomplish. The base ideal of Autotheism lies right in the title, itself being a portmanteau of the Latin root word auto– which refers to self, or in the case of this disc “I”, and –theism, which is a belief in a higher being. You see that latter root used to describe cultures as monotheistic (belief in one god) or in the case of most ancient cultures, polytheistic, a belief in many gods.
Autotheism pushes forth the philosophy that there is no god other than a man himself, hence the Frankenstein’ed idea that “I am god”, which the album espouses for much of its first few songs (and in the case of “Ten Billion Years”, through the line, “I will drink to myself/for I know there’s nothing else”), before moving onto a combination of the aforementioned philosophy and something of a more transhumanist bent in the latter half of its songs.
While the philosophy is very much in The Faceless’ wheel house, the music is a bigger shift in sound, although it remains arguably familiar due to some of the similarities that it shares with other artists. The aforementioned “Autotheist” trilogy begins the album with almost eighteen minutes of the band exploring the progressive death genre, a stark shift from the relentless blasting and Necrophagist-stle sweeping that drew many fans in the first place. It actually does resurrect an old Faceless trademark of having odd sounds appear in their music via synth, such as the occasional circus-like atmospherics that permeate these initial three songs. If you missed some of the keyboard work from Akeldama, largely absent on Planetary Duality, then you’ll be understandably excited that it does make an appearance across much of Autotheism, in spades.
In that sense, in addition to the title sharing the same initial letter (which makes for some interesting mp3 sorting), Autotheism has more in common with the group’s debut disc than Planetary Duality. However, the “Autotheist” trilogy does have a tendency to sound like a combination of other artists fused with some light Faceless elements more than it does its own distinctive music. The whole set of songs is propelled forward by a slow, melodic guitar part that is very catchy, but it marks the song as a denizen of the prog realm.
Guitarist Michael Keene also gets a lot of mileage here, providing a bunch of clean singing. His vocal style is a little awkward, although nothing too overtly offensive. He does have moments across pretty much all of Autotheism when he sounds a ton like Devin Townsend — which is one hell of a pull from left field for a band like this. Case in point: There is a section in the second part of “Autotheist Movement” that sounds like it is right out of the DTP song “The Mighty Masturbator” from Deconstruction, which is odd since that disc was meant to be a deconstruction of metal and its various tropes. Also, during “Accelerated Evolution” there is a part where Keene sings, “We falllll” (or something of the sort), which sounds so much like Mr. Townsend that he might as well have an uncredited cameo.
The interplay between Michael Keene’s clean-sung vocals and new vocalist Geoffrey Ficco in the opening song’s good-cop/bad-cop styled chorus does have a tendency to get stuck in one’s head. While we’re on it, Geoffrey Ficco is also a pretty good vocalist in his own right, fitting in perfectly well with the rest of the band. You’d be hard-pressed to tell that the band had to replace their vocalist in between discs. He’s got a good roar and a good series of lows, so when the band does decide to move more into the death metal side of their music, he really gets going, and then the band really do sound like “old” Faceless.
The rest of the trilogy also swings back and forth from the second song on, becoming much more death metal focused but then stopping for an out-of-the-blue saxophone solo. It’s an oddly schizophrenic trilogy of songs because all three are so starkly different from what The Faceless have done before. The band haven’t completely left their tech-death expertise behind, but they have shown no qualms about adding a bunch of different ingredients to their formula. To illustrate the point further, there are a couple of times during the opening songs when the music becomes very quiet, with just a keyboard going and then a solo consisting of very few notes, but they are all sustained…which in effect makes them sound like Opeth for the twenty seconds when this happens.
So in a way, the first three songs of Autotheism sound like four different bands thrown together and fighting it out.You have elements of Devin Townsend, Cynic, Opeth, and then The Faceless all bouncing around within the space of eighteen minutes. It’s an interesting experience, and there are moments in each song that are very well done (the first one in particular having an earworm quality to it), so it’s not hard to enjoy the experience. But I can’t shake the feeling that I’m enjoying it not for the same reasons that I have enjoyed earlier Faceless material.
The back half of Autotheism, however, seems to be made more for fans of the group, rather than as an artistic exploration. The songs here are more traditionally death metal, and while they do still get off-kilter, listeners will likely come to grips with them more easily than the first three. You get sweeps a-plenty here, and although clean vocals are still present, they aren’t as exposed. They make up the chorus to “The Eidolon Reality”, but again, they’re playing off a good-cop/bad-cop dynamic for that section and not dominating entire tracks. They do that for much of the back half of Autotheism, which oddly enough gives almost every song here a sing-along-worthy chorus. With the band’s first two albums, I never considered that there’d ever be a karaoke quality to The Faceless’ music, but as the lineup changes so does the music.
The song “Hail Science” is the real oddball amongst these latter-half songs, simply because it feels like a combination of a segue and band silliness. It’s only about a minute long but it is incredibly on-the-nose with the philosophical discussion taking place throughout the whole disc. The intro is styled to sound like the voice synthesizer that Stephen Hawking uses, and the voice rambles out some very basic stuff about god and his relationship to humanity before closing with, “and The Faceless will say, ‘I Told You So'”. I’m not asking for Tool levels of obfuscation when it comes to lyrical philosophy, but when you have that bit and an odd preacher-speaking-to-the-crowd segment taking place in the same minute or so of music, it just feels like being beaten over the head with the point they’re trying to make.
Some interesting things do happen in between the more traditional grooves and growls that appear here. The last song has an acoustic guitar opening before dropping into a heavy bit of rocking out.
Autotheism almost feels like a Michael Keene solo work, with everyone else just barely getting there in time to add on to it. I distinctly recall, for instance, a bunch of noise being made that the guys had added the very talented Evan Brewer (who released one hell of a solo bass album) on bass, yet for much of Autotheism he seems buried in the back of everything — vocals and guitars up front, and then the bass back there just keeping up with everything else. He’s very skilled and maybe he wasn’t added in time to have any distinctive effect on these particular compositions, but all the big noise and smoke that was made when he joined the group seem a bit overdone in hindsight.
Autotheism is an enjoyable disc, but it is hard to come to grips with, and I understand why people may have a hard time with it and perhaps experience a little disappointment. It feels like a huge combination of disparate elements that at times blend well with each other, but at other times serve to remind listeners that The Faceless are a very different band. Sometimes it seems like I’m telling myself that I’m obligated to enjoy Autotheism, since it contains so many different elements from bands I really enjoy, and it does contain just enough of The Faceless to make me go, “Fuck yeah, this is The Faceless”.
Yet it’s hard to get rid of that nagging feeling throughout much of this release that it’s good music constructed by formula rather than something that grew organically. Oddly, the three songs that open the album, despite their whipsawing schizophrenic nature, feel more natural than some of what the band try on the latter half of Autotheism. On occasion, everything does click, and when it does, you still get a sense of The Faceless that influenced so many of the younger bands who are just starting out. In the end, I’m left with the view that Autotheism is a very odd-feeling release, just due to the Do I Like It?, Do I Not?, or Do I, But Can’t Explain Why? nature of my reaction.
EDITOR’S NOTE: Autotheism is out now on Sumerian Records. Here’s “Deconsecrate”: