If Sol Invictus is your favorite Faith No More album, you really do have shitty taste. Hell, if Sol Invictus is your fifth favorite Faith No More album, the shittiness of your taste remains firmly intact. If Sol Invictus was your favorite Faith No More album to be released in 2015… well, I can be open to persuasion. In the wake of The Real Thing, Angel Dust, King for a Day and Album of the Year (itself a nonstarter for much of our masthead, though I will personally defend it kind of mostly), Sol Invictus often felt like I. M. Pei futzing around in a backyard sandbox. Talent was glimpsed, but wasted. Ideas fluttered, sputtered and croaked.
We should all admit how much of our overall disappointment was due to our history of adoration for the band, the bereavement felt when they disintegrated, and the obscene anticipation that built up through those first tentative reunion shows and the years that followed. Older FNM records were resolutely punk in their attitude, and even as they calcified shadows on Angel Dust, erupted into a confetti of styles on King for a Day and embraced weird pop on Album of the Year, the band taught us about music and its possibilities. Does Sol Invictus teach us anything more, given the vast quantities of music that have filled the past two decades, including all of FNM’s members’ various intriguing projects?
But while Sol Invictus was far from the return-to-form revelation we might have hoped, it’s far from an unlistenable mess. At its best, it recalls all the attention-deficit musicality and brash bluster that we associate with this band, and it re-introduces us to men in a more advanced stage of their lives, who are interested less in shocking and berating than in satisfying their own collective recording desires. In this sense, Nick Green said it just right in his review: “Sol Invictus is… for better or worse, the most authentically pure expression of the band’s soul since Angel Dust.” Though he didn’t really mean it as a compliment, it’s just barely a slight.
The most recognizable FNM moments might be “Superhero” and “Matador.” The former shields itself slightly by appearing after the spare, precious opening title track, but once it gets going, it is the most ferocious track on the record. Here, the balance of smash ‘n’ sneer versus stately melody is honed to a keen edge. The success of the reunion lives in every measure of this baroque rock anthem. “Matador” pretends to fall in line with the rest of the album’s tasteful restraint, but it soon builds into a tooth-filled growl, mimicking its own line: “We will rise from the killing floor like a matador!” The song contains Patton’s most convincing vocals, Roddy Bottum’s lushest keyboard lines, Jon Hudson’s most interesting guitar textures and Billy Gould’s gutsiest bass work. As a statement, “Matador” is hard to top, and through the course of Sol Invictus, Faith No More prove the point by not topping it.
But let’s not overlook the other charms to be had on the record, the ones that would be more obvious if they had been paired “Star A.D.”-like with more aggressive fare. My personal introduction to new FNM material was through the early release of single “Motherfucker.” While not a song I might have wished to hear right out of the gate from these guys, it takes on a delirious quality that is only amplified by repetition. And since it was the only new FNM song around at the time, repeat it I did. In one afternoon, I think I listened to it 20 to 30 times in a row, and the silliness of Patton bringing his full vocal prowess to bear on that song’s title gave me the giggles. As an invitation for fans and their expectations to piss off, it’s a pretty compelling middle finger.
After the manic explosion of “Superhero,” the trailing “Sunny Side Up” feels lackluster, especially in its lyrical oddness, but musically the song is as interesting as anything else on the album. Its brief forays into rock belligerence keep it from being another flaccid entry, and the midsong funk wankery is cool as hell. “Separation Anxiety” simmers appealingly, suffering only slightly for the flamboyant catharsis at its center. It pushes most of the important retro-FNM buttons with strong performances and thoughtful songwriting. Closer “From the Dead” eschews all the furrowed-brow affectations and jams breezily, like “Just a Man” cut loose from all the tense undercurrents. “Rise of the Fall” teases and tiptoes, which could be considered a fault, though again, if the music that exists here is taken on its own terms rather than the imagined possibilities, the song is another clear example of FNM sounding precisely like themselves and absolutely nobody else. “Cone of Shame” is a Halloween anthem that should appeal to any burgeoning Jack the Ripper-to-be, a tightly wound crawl through the seething psychoses that have driven the best FNM explorations of darkness.
But, yeah, fuck “Black Friday.” I refuse to stand behind that refuse. It is beneath whatever honor this revered quintet is still due, and it arrives just as the album needs a pick-me-up but delivers a killing blow. If both earlier and later tracks hold the key to FNM’s most potent form, “Black Friday” represents every reason people could dismiss Sol Invictus. It’s really the only complete dullard here, though, and deserves no further attention. Skip forward to “Matador,” and use that pristine bit of nü-nü-metal to remind you why you picked up this album in the first place.