Album Review: Atheist - Piece of Time / Unquestionable Presence
Reviewed by Rich Oliver
Even back in its infancy, death metal was evolving as a genre determined to push boundaries and explore different sounds as well as remaining true to its extremity. In the early 90’s especially there was a wave of bands determined to take death metal out of its comfort zone and push the genre down more progressive and technical avenues. Bands such as Death, Cynic, Pestilence and Nocturnus were spearheading this technical and progressive death metal uprising as were the band who are the subject of this review - Atheist - who are having their groundbreaking first two albums reissued by Nuclear Blast Records with a glut of bonus material.
Atheist’s debut album “Piece Of Time” is a phenomenal death metal album. It has a very old school sound which mixes elements of technical thrash and death metal together but remains a very frantic album but with plenty of technical flourishes and a progressive take on death/thrash. The riffing itself is very much in a thrash style but with the harshness of early death metal and the guitar solos are in a very thrash-based chaotic style but it’s the incredible bass playing of Roger Patterson and the frantic yet jazzy drumming style of Steve Flynn that really stand out and give this album its technical and progressive edge. The vocals from Kelly Shaefer are in a harsh style but sit somewhere between a thrash bar and a death roar. Considering this is a debut album both musicianship and songwriting are top tier with classics such as ‘On They Slay’, ‘Unholy War’ And ‘No Truth’ solidified as bona fide classics from the band.
The bonus material on this reissue is a collection of demo tracks taken from the “Beyond” and “Hell Hath No Fury” demos as well as the “On They Slay” demo from the bands very early days when they were named R.A.V.A.G.E. and these demos vary in quality. The material from the “Beyond” demo is the best sounding and the closest to how the songs would sound on the album whilst the “Hell Hath No Fury” and “On They Slay” demo material is a lot more raw both in terms of sound quality and the material presented being far more in a death/thrash style with less of the technical and progressive elements. It’s interesting to hear these demos and see how some of these songs evolved into the final product on “Piece Of Time”.
Atheist’s second album “Unquestionable Presence” is unquestionably the best thing they have released and a firm favourite with the fans. As great an album that “Piece Of Time” is, “Unquestionable Presence” is just a massive step up in every way. Stepping away from the death/thrash influences on the debut and deeper into the prog and tech rabbit hole but still with solid death metal riffing and harsh vocals but the instrumentation here is far more jazz influenced and sounds more playful. The riffs are more intricate, the guitar solos have a slickness to them and the bass and drums are even more impressive than before. The band had the tragic death of their bassist Roger Patterson between albums but he wrote his bass parts for this album until his tragic passing and here we have Tony Choy taking on the bass playing and doing a tremendous job. The songs themselves are far more complex and progressively minded with lots of interesting transitions and progressions and many are now firm classics from the band such as the stunning title track, the complex “Mother Man”, the crunching “Enthralled In Essence” and the tech glory of album closer “And The Psychic Saw”.
The bonus material offered on this reissue is a bit less interesting than the material on “Piece Of Time” mainly being pre-production demos which, apart from recording quality, differ little from the final product. There are a few interesting instrumental versions which really showcase the technical prowess of the band with a standout being a bass and drums mix of “Mother Man” which really shows of the skills of Tony Choy and Steve Flynn.
Both these reissues of “Piece Of Time” and “Unquestionable Presence” are vastly enjoyable. They are both classic albums which show how fast death metal was progressing in the early 90’s. If you are an Atheist fan and already own these albums then the bonus material is definitely of interest especially to an Atheist mega fan. If you have never heard Atheist before then these albums are well worth your time and show the impressive origins of what would become technical death metal.