Piece of Time(Active - 1990)
Atheist emerged in 1984 amidst the brand new Florida death-metal scene initiated and trail-blazed by Death, and influenced by Possessed's slightly earlier death-thrash sound. Atheist was first named Oblivion, then RAVAGE (Raging Atheists Vowing A Gory End). As with Death's earlier albums, this debut is a far cry from their more progressive and jazz-influenced sounds for which they will later become famous. But the sound and more advanced riffing techniques are already here in subtle ways, and thus was born 'technical death metal'. It all starts here. Much like early Possessed was prototypical death metal, this is prototypical technical death. This shows itself in some unusual jagged riffs and sudden sharp changes in tempo, with the occasional use of strange time-signatures, and especially in some of the unusual bass lines by Roger Patterson (who would die after this release). But this sound still has its roots firmly in thrash-metal, and, like early Death (Scream Bloody Gore), is basically raw early death metal that is a more brutal form of thrash. As with other pioneering albums (e.g. Possessed's debut), it will be difficult to appreciate it fully nowadays, since it doesn't stand out compared to later developments and does have a more primitive sound. But even disregarding its historical status, as a death metal album this is good energetic early death-metal with enjoyable flowing thrash-metal compositions, and very good instrumental playing. Vocals are mid-to-high-range Schuldiner-esque bark-growls. 'No Truth', a re-recorded demo track, stands out with its keyboard intro, but the rest are mostly prototypical technical death-thrash. It doesn't have the superb seamless musical flow of Death, but neither is it as disjointed as later technical death, which makes it better than many such bands that came after Atheist. So first and foremost this is a pioneering album. That said, musically, this is not a classic, but still an above-average, quite good, albeit prototypical early death metal release.
Unquestionable Presence(Active - 1991)
This landmark release is where Atheist would emerge with their own experimental sound that incorporates things like slightly jazzy solos, syncopated rhythms, more advanced shifting time-signatures, and more challenging, very dynamic compositions. Their interest in experimenting didn't stop there however, using anything they feel would add to the composition, such as Latin rhythms, a Middle-Eastern tune, atmospheric recordings, acoustic guitar, keyboards, funky bass, and even bird-chirping sounds. This adventurous approach to music is obviously what enabled them to invent 'technical death metal' in the previous album, and here it becomes a little more more technical and progressive, but this experimentation would also alienate some fans in the next release (a classic reaction to pioneers that never like to stand still...). Every single song stands out on this release, because Atheist made sure that each composition would be unique. Most importantly, as opposed to many later technical death metal releases, this one does not lose its flowing musical power despite all the experimentation. Granted, much of later technical death would take this to an extreme where the riffs just keep changing until the song is lost, but Atheist on this album maintain the minimal structure and skeleton of theme development with a superb sense of flow and momentum, all of which doesn't allow the audience to get lost even when they wander off into chaotic instrumental variations, always coming back to the song before it falls apart. In other words there is still a sense of the song as a whole, whereas many later influenced bands would lose the song by focusing on the riffs. This is a challenging as well as an enjoyable album, and an absolute classic of the genre. The jazz elements aren't as prominent as, say, a later (great) band like Martyr, but the slight elements of jazz that are here are used with subtle and seamless fusion, with a very dominant focus on death metal. Interestingly, similar to Death, the band would share a band member with Cynic (Tony Choy on bass), who presumably brought the Latin influence into the band, among other things. Vocals, as before, are good Florida-metal bark-growls, sometimes sounding like Mustaine-meets-Schuldiner. A classic release for early progressive technical death metal, and an absolute must-have.
Elements(Music for Nations - 1993)
Supposedly, the band was already dissolving by this time, but recorded this album only to fulfill obligations. In addition, Kelly Shaefer had problems with carpal tunnel syndrome and they had to hire a third guitar player to help. These problems should theoretically make this release a very troublesome and difficult collaboration. But this did not stop them from fearlessly going full out into experimentation, not letting even the metal genre hold them back from exploring whatever caught their fancy. This album's primary sound shifts towards more heavy metal fusion with strong elements of thrash metal, and only hints of death metal. The vocals continue with their Mustaine-meets-Schuldiner approach, except with more variety, including harsher vocals and some kind of layered echo sound. The music can thrash one minute, then segue into samba jazz or a tango rhythm, then show off a chromatic heavy metal guitar solo, while the bass strums tunes playfully as another voice. The thrash is so stripped and slowed down sometimes it becomes Iron Maiden-esque heavy metal, but the overall sound is of progressive fusion metal with a thrash influence. Dream Theater were only beginning at this period and this is more experimental than them, as well as darker. But there sounds like there may be some Watchtower influences here. The production is relatively rougher for some reason, like it was recorded in a large room with weak microphone placement. The theme for this album is 'Elements' and most of the songs pick one and try to write a song inspired by that element. Overall, I'm not going to say that this is a masterpiece, although as always, Atheist deserve credit for being pioneering and adventurous. Some songs work better than others. Some are fascinating progressive metal, some are highly enjoyable metal fusion, some are kinda clunky. But most are good-to-very-good and this is definitely worth checking out as long as you aren't expecting death metal. One-of-a-kind enjoyment.
Unquestionable Presence: Live at Wacken(Relapse - 2009)
After 16 years and several rumors of reunions for this pioneering band that died so quickly and had so many musical ideas, it finally happens, in the form of a live album. The guitars are handled by others, but otherwise it's the original line-up of 'Unquestionable Presence'. Shaefer belts his vocals with gusto and energy as if no time has passed. The guitars are nicely handled for the most part, but do have a degree of sloppiness, and the drums and the guitars are often not in sync. So it's a bit rough going musically, although the live energy is definitely there in spades and one can tell it must have been an intense concert. With such complex music and a delicate musical thread in the more progressive songs however, the songs do tend to become more chaotic (and energetic) deliveries rather than the precise and flowing compositions I got to know in the original albums. The release includes two CDs: One is the live performance covering the first two albums evenly (ignoring Elements...perhaps they didn't want to change the tone/intensity). The second CD is a compilation of original tracks from all three albums. An average live album in my opinion, although obviously a huge event for dedicated fans.
Jupiter(Season of Mist - 2010)
After the live reunion, a surprise comeback album. As with the live concert, this one chooses to ignore Elements and go back to the basics somewhere in between Unquestionable Presence and Piece of Time. I.e. there isn't much in the way of jazz, but there are plenty of surprises, and a bewildering array of technical death-thrash riffs, and there's a surplus of energy. Unfortunately, one of the biggest problems with this release is the production: Every single thing is blasted at the same setting of eleven, and everything is very flat. It becomes obnoxious pretty fast, and it kills the dynamic compositions. This terrible production also drowns the bass, and considering that the bass was always a strong independent voice in Atheist, this is unusually bad. As far as the compositions are concerned, it's not all good either, and quite a mixed bag with a definite lean towards the below-average, I'm afraid. There are pretty good tracks such as "Fictitious Glide", "Live and Live Again", "When the Beast" and "Faux King Christ" (see what they did there?), but their dynamic power has been completely neutered by the flat production. The rest of the tracks fall into the common trap of technical death metal: Too many changes and riffs in an attempt to impress, surprise, brutalize or show-off, but the music gets lost in the process. This is something Atheist managed to avoid at the time when they pioneered with 'Unquestionable Presence', thanks to a great sense of music and momentum. Once again, some of this may be blamed on the production, but only a little bit. And finally the vocals are a bit more nasal and monotonous this time and don't always work, and can even be off-putting. In short, definitely a below-average release with a hefty amount of serious problems. Sorry.