It’s funny, I’ve been on a technical death metal kick lately, and I was just thinking about how I’d love to do an anniversary piece on an Atheist album. Chances are if you’re surfing the web for new music, hanging around the local metal club, or making your index and middle fingers walk over crispy vinyl albums at your favorite record store, you’ve heard about Atheist. Maybe you recognize the bold and oddly-simple to read name logo or the striking artwork that adorns their limited yet cherished catalog, or perhaps neither because, for many, the band’s infamously challenging reputation precedes themself. Lo and behold, upon reviewing this year’s list of group’s celebrating annual milestones, near the top of the chronological list, stands Piece of Time, the debut LP by not only one of the most influential groups of the Florida scene but also, arguably, technical death metal’s most impregnable savant.
When I say it’s hard to “get into” Atheist, I mean it as a dyed-(hard)-in-the-wool fan of technical death metal (“tech death,” per the cool kids). A genre that I firmly believe to be the true evolution of 70’s progressive rock, tech, and prog death metal bands compose wildly creative tunes that demand a higher caliber of musicianship. Like 70’s prog, tech-death is maligned by some as indulgent or pretentious, and while I would never fault anyone for not enjoying the works of Necrophagist or Archspire, it’s folly not to acknowledge the sheer skill on display live and on wax. But Atheist is another story.
You can hear prog-rock influences in tech death any day, but Atheist, on the other hand, draws a significant amount of influence from jazz, which compounds the complexity of tech-death with the unpredictability of improvised virtuosity. Jazz, and death metal, have high barriers of entry, and dissonant atmospheres and abrupt time signature changes might sound unappealing at first. But once it clicks, the movements sound less opaque and more organic, which is to say it starts sounding more like music rather than noise. Atheist’s sophomore LP Unquestionable Presence showcases the more refined jazz intrusions that define the Floridians’ notorious rep, but on Piece of Time, the overall vibe is less Coltrane and more Death.
This is not to say Piece of Time slouches in comparison to Unquestionable Presence; in fact, I know there’s a decent number of people who prefer the more straight-forward tech-death of PoT to UP, the latter of which echoing of Pastorius and Sun Ra. Perhaps the first true technical death metal album, listening to Piece of Time on its thirtieth birthday, brings to mind all the bands whose inner ‘metal’ was awakened by it. Right off the bat, the eponymous opening track illustrates a prime example of the early Atheist sound: fiercely snarled vocals, absurdly jaunty thrash, dissonant intrusions of progressive metal, and of course, wickedly technical musicianship. In what could almost be construed as avant-garde metal, “Piece of Time” opens a door into a uniquely-crafted universe where Atheist can explore their burgeoning jazz tendencies on the following tracks; moreover, it’s a benchmark that clearly demonstrates the finest qualities of early-nineties tech death.
Notably, Piece of Time also features the remarkable bass playing chops of the late Roger Patterson, whose legendary contributions to canon of tech-death are largely sequestered to these thirty-two minutes. Patterson’s abilities run the gamut of angular jazz lines to windmilling death gallops, from frantic call-and-responses throughout “Unholy War” to the headbanging thrash of “Room with a View” that make my fingers hurt just thinking about it. Admiring the complex control of Patterson’s bass playing is rewarding yet bittersweet; not to take anything away from the indispensable Tony Choy on the follow up Unquestionable Presence, but it’s hard not to imagine what influence Roger would’ve had were he still alive today (not only was UP dedicated in memory of Patterson, but Suffocation’s debut Effigy of the Forgotten also memorialized the late bassist).
And compositionally, the rest of the band impress as they put other 90’s metal groups to shame. One thing you’ll likely notice in Atheist’s early material is their propensity towards thrash and breezy late-PoT excursions like “Why Bother?” and “I Deny” dip their musical toes in the progressive thrash bath more than once. But, the overall vibe is squarely death metal, as evident by Kelly Shaefer’s sneering growl that sort of sounds like a crust punk Chuck Schuldinger. Shaefer also wields an electric axe, and along with Rand Burkey, they use their tools to chop a lot of metal wood. The guitars collide and bounce around Patterson’s indomitable bass like dragonflies in mid-air combat; all kept on track by Steve Flynn’s brutally progressive drum kit, whose job on percussion would only get jazzier in the future. Technical death metal is a genre brimming with virtuosic talent, but it’s plain to see (and hear) that Atheist’s players lay claim to the upper echelon of skilled performers.
For a band well known for their impenetrability, Piece of Time proves to be a great place to start for those looking to get into Atheist. While still a fairly-adventurous example of tech death, studying a course like PoT only requires prerequisite experience with similar extreme metal; unlike their ‘91 record Unquestionable Presence (for which I’d recommend a priming on A Love Supreme or The Heliocentric Worlds of Sun Ra), Atheist’s first foray into progressive and technical death metal is more digestible and less, shall we say, obtuse. A lot of us who enjoy tech-death seek out new and exciting groups in the current era, but it’s nonetheless worthwhile to look back at the genre’s humble beginnings to hear what basically started it all. If you’ve been putting off getting into Atheist (like I did for some time), give Piece of Time an undivided half-hour: there are worse things to do out there than enriching your senses, try it on and see if you like it.
Piece of Time was recorded by Atheist and released by Active Records thirty years ago in 1990. It was the band’s debut album.