From their humble, early beginnings trading as Sharp Young Men, way back in 1979, through to their last studio album in 1997 and eventual break-up in 1998, Faith No More was a rabid tour de force of a band; undeniably clever performers and songwriters they remained as unpredictable as they were addictive. Their fan base grew to the point that when they re-emerged as a live act in 2009, people flooded to every festival outing to see them as a priority. The success of their own shows only spurred them on to produce this very album, their first for 18 years. So, have they messed around with their winning formula, and if so by how much?
Well, there's certainly an element of their more exploratory later albums in here, but there's also a taste of something completely new to the band - the subversive, experimental edge that has followed frontman Mike Patton's solo career around. The content feels unusually spacious with short whip-cracks of sound. It's an album unsure of itself, yet one with a wild-eyed lunatic forever ducking into and out of the shadows. It feels dark, unkempt, anguished and unruly. This is music built for the stage - hell, it's so choreographed the tracks could form scenes of a play.
Just the sound of Sol Invictus will singe the ears and sting the eyes. It's inevitably the fact that there is a step-up in production values since their last studio foray, but this has an almost maddening degree of layering and an overwhelming dynamic range. What has changed most of all here is the weakening of the band's guitar rock bias; it is a recording marked out by a chilly, piercing tone rather than one with their usually warm underscore. Roddy Bottom's keyboards emerge as the staging platform from which Patton can launch his adaptive combination of croon, spoken word and psychotic invective, and Billy Gould's bass has shifted from driving the beast to merely steering it.
From behind a progression, one strikingly reminiscent of The Stone Roses with an added military drum-roll and a soft piano, Patton's half-whispered, half-rapped verses of the short title-track are pre-cursors to the real deal when monsters like "Superhero" and "Motherfucker" finally hit. The former snarls with menace as it plays a game of catch-and-release with the huge hook of the chorus - an enigmatic piano cascade and the lyric "Leader of men, get back in your cage". The latter is another familial, measured, half-spoken rap. Determined and fluorescing this was always going to be their party-piece - too subversive to be mainstream, too catchy to be anything other than the album's first tease. Even "Sunny Side Up" proves they aren't messing when it comes to driving home the hooks, while always bouncing ideas off the backbone of the track. Here, they conjure up a passage of funk guitar, burbling backing vocals, and transient classic piano. The boys appear to be diving in to their task with their confidence high and their imaginations bubbling nicely.
They also seem just as comfortable connecting with their past as they are keen to experiment with new sounds. One track in particular, "Separation Anxiety", appears to step firmly into the footprint of their 1992 "Land Of Sunshine" hit and that jagged rumbling underscore overlaid by rapid, lyrical bursts. Yet, it also explodes from it into sections of maniacal raving with Patton employing a vocal element not a million miles from that of Deftones/Palms' Chino Moreno's.
Ultimately though, there's more here that will shock than will appease. You'll notice that, seeping up between the cracks in the pavement, we also get a variety of atmospheric effects which daub the album with strong, stylized strokes. For example, "Cone Of Shame" is the biggest step into the warped mind of Patton's recent body of extreme music and is heavily-embedded with minor keys. Then, "Rise Of The Fall" plays with depth of field; layered deep and recorded both in your face and way at the back of the room. Bursting with a folky shtick it employs arcane instrumentation - possibly, castanets and accordion with what sounds like a dampened or plastic-stringed guitar. There's also "Matador" to engage with, which pulls through elements akin to the dark work of Steven Wilson.
As a final statement, "From The Dead" is awash with colour, yet feels detached from the rest of the album. It really is an easy-listening bolt-on bonus without direction or purpose. With that in mind, it seems obvious that, as expectation has raged out of control for this album, Sol Invictus was always going to disappoint on some level. No, it isn't the masterpiece so many dreamed it would be but, then again, it does what Bill Gould promised it would - it "kicks things up a notch". Of course, if Patton manages to mimic this degree of mania in a live setting, then all will be forgiven. The jury remains out on whether they can rediscover their mojo, but if they are to do it by warping perceptions then they're making all the right noises; just perhaps not in what many will perceive to be the right order.