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Technical Ecstacy

Forget Math Metal--A Reunited Atheist Brings Quantum Physics Thrash To Baltimore

NICE PANTS: Atheist (with Kelly Shaefer, third from left) was way ahead of its time--musically, at least.

By Phil Freeman | Posted 11/29/2006

Atheist plays the Auditory Assault Festival at Sonar Dec. 2

"I've always felt we created a new genre back in the early '90s," says Atheist guitarist Kelly Shaefer by phone from Florida, as his band prepares for its first U.S. shows in over a decade. "A lot of people didn't really understand it then, but they understand it now."

Indeed, 15 years ago technical death metal--a more rhythmically intricate take on thrash, like if Metallica jammed with Weather Report--was a tiny movement of weirdos within the already fringe death scene. Today, as metal consistently rakes in the summer festival bucks, techie bands are still catering to guys who'd rather stand, arms folded, against a club's back wall--the better to closely monitor a guitarist's flying fingers--than mosh. But there are more of them all the time, from all over the world. Canada has produced standouts Cryptopsy and Neuraxis, and Germany offers Necrophagist, led by a Turkish maniac who learned his breathtaking, knuckle-popping guitar technique behind the back of his strict Muslim father.

Atheist--along with early-'90s contemporaries Death, Cynic, and Pestilence--knew that if you took metal's penchant for guitar pyrotechnics far enough out, eventually you caught up to jazz-fusion giants like Allan Holdsworth and John McLaughlin. This was a major break from death metal's formula, which mostly called for unison hair-spinning and repetitive, down-tuned guitar riffs like truck tires spinning in soupy mud. Atheist's 1990 debut, Piece of Time, marries death metal's crunching riffs and thundering drums to supple time changes and intricate guitar/bass interaction. And it ups the complexity quotient quite a bit compared to the work of more Neanderthal peers like Obituary and Morbid Angel, thanks in large part to bassist Roger Patterson, a player of Jaco Pastorius-like skill, who seized an unusually prominent place in the mix. Most death metal bassists are heard as an amorphous rumble; Patterson was a competing lead voice.

When Patterson died in a van accident on tour in 1991, the band recruited Cynic's Tony Choy to replace him for the follow-up, the even brainier and more complex Unquestionable Presence, before packing it in after facing hostile or just befuddled audiences on tour--Atheist didn't exactly take the death metal world by storm on the first go-round. "We had our fans," Shaefer recalls. "But the scene worldwide was not receptive to a jazz-fusion influence. It was a really tough time for us back in the early '90s. . . . We were touring with bands like Cannibal Corpse and practically getting booed off [stage]."

Not only were Atheist frequently booed at gigs, they were even razzed by their putative peers. "We always sort of had a conflict with the Morbid Angel guys," Shaefer says. "We did a show in Tampa . . . and Morbid Angel just took the entire stage, literally left us with about 18 inches to stand on in front of the drum kit. At the time we were all selling equally, we were all on the ground floor of this Florida death metal movement, there was just no need for that kind of attitude. But we just played with Morbid Angel in Norway. . . . We're grown-up now, and not so competitive, so we chuckled about it."

When contractual obligations demanded a third release after the band's breakup, the result was 1993's Elements, the jazziest and most stylistically far-ranging of the group's efforts. (There's even a samba-influenced instrumental in between the thrashing attacks.) For years, this slim discography has obsessed as many fans as it's alienated, but the CDs have been out of print, fetching cartoonish prices online. When the albums were reissued by Relapse in 2005, packed with demos, rehearsal tapes, and a live radio performance from 1992, the response was well-deserved worship from critics, old fans, and brand-new listeners finally able to hear these important early documents of technical death metal. Soon, pressure for, and eventually rumors of, a live reunion began to swirl on metal message boards.

"We never planned on doing shows or anything," Shaefer avers. "It was just about putting the records back on the shelves because they're a piece of metal history, and people were paying, like, $150 for 'em on eBay, which was ridiculous. It took off so well . . . we put the hook in the water and landed a couple of really great shows in Europe."

The touring Atheist lineup features Shaefer on vocals only--carpal tunnel has cost him the ability to play guitar and sing onstage--Choy on bass, original drummer Steve Flynn, and guitarists Sonny Carson and Chris Baker from Flynn's current band, Gnostic. They're making their return to the U.S. concert stage top-billed at the Auditory Assault Festival, a daylong event held this weekend at Sonar.

Why Baltimore? "It's easier for festivals to be able to afford for us to come up, and for us to be able to afford to do it, too," Shaefer explains. "[And] Auditory Assault is the same guys who did the Maryland Deathfest. They're good guys."

The Auditory Assault gig will, with a little luck, be the first of a string of performances, but Atheist's reunion is a temporary one. Shaefer plans to retire the band name for good by the end of 2007--making this probably the last time area fans will have a chance to see the band--having proved his point to metal and to posterity. The reissues--which kick ass all over most new metal records released in the last year--are powerful testimony to the meeting of jazz and metal and will remain long after Atheist takes its final bow. From starting out as an object of scorn, Atheist has become a crucial influence for a generation of progressive-minded metalheads.

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