ATHEIST — Unquestionable Presence (review)

ATHEIST — Unquestionable Presence album cover Album · 1991 · Technical Death Metal Buy this album from MMA partners
4.5/5 ·
Yes, I'm a bit of a music history buff, particularly when it comes to early heavy metal. Recently, though, I have become fascinated by the development of the heavy metal subgenres in the 1980's, many of which reached full fruition by the late eighties and early nineties. Death metal, or at least the American take on death metal, strikes me as originally being the Floridian interpretation of Californian thrash metal. Most American death metal recordings I've recently acquired either originated in Florida or the bands were from other eastern parts of the country but moved to Florida.

Athiest were one of the Florida scene bands to emerge in the eighties. Though formed in 1984 under a different name, they became Athiest as death metal was coming into its own in the late 80's and released their debut before the decade was spent. Their sophomore effort, however, is held in particular high regard for its bold steps toward technical death metal. While some bands I have heard remind me of Slayer/Possessed/Kreator, Athiest's sound on this album mostly suggest a more traditional thrash metal root, with early Metallica and Exodus frequently coming to mind. The guitar sound and riffs, as well as the lead solos, are closer to the early thrash sound to my ears; songs like "Your Life's Retribution" and "Enthralled in Essence" suggesting the guitarists honed their chops on "Kill 'em All" and "Ride the Lightning". The vocals too are more aggressive, thrash-like shouting than death metal's gravelly growls.

Thrash metal connotations aside, the more interesting aspect of this album is the giant leap toward technical death metal. Athiest' second album is said to have pushed the technical envelope further and it is very obvious that the band were out to succinctly combine aggressive speed with technical agility. In a way, I find this album to be a perfect bridge between thrash and technical death metal, at once being reminded of Sacrifice's "Soldiers of Misfortune" and Metallica on the thrash side and Cynic and later Death on the death side.

One key element to Athiest's sound was the bass playing prowess of bassist Roger Patterson, who brought incredible technical skill and composition-writing ability. Tragically, he suffered the fate of too many band members when his tour van crashed on the way back to Florida from California in the wee hours, yet another case of the driver pushing himself too far and dozing off at the wheel. The liner notes to the CD's re-release say that had the band been higher profile, Patterson's death would have been as shocking to the metal community as Cliff Burton's.

For the music on this album, Patterson had already come up with all the bass parts, and being the highly skilled player he was, it was not easy to find someone who could play his parts. The band called in Tony Choy of Cynic, perhaps not a surprise as Cynic were another band eagerly pursuing the technical death metal gauntlet. The results are stupendous as the bass playing stands out amidst the intense guitar and drum work. I feel, though, that the bass and guitar levels are rendered a bit louder over the vocals and drums, at least on the re-issue with bonus tracks.

And how about this re-issue? It includes several pre-production versions of songs, which sound as good as the album tracks on my ear buds, and some demos and instrumental versions. Though not essential for appreciating this album, the additional tracks are one of the better bonus collections I have heard.

It seems most consider this a highly important album in the annals of death metal history and I won't be one to disagree. It's an impressive piece of work!
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