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Sunday Old School: Atheist

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Band Photo: Atheist (?)

Jazz is something which a lot of people would initially think is worlds away from heavy metal. After all, no one can say that "Blue in Green" sounds anything like, "Reign in Blood" and death metal vocals are hardly a copy of Chet Baker’s. But give it some thought and a little bit of research and it’s clear to see that jazz has had a big influence on the genre, including some of its biggest names such as Megadeth, whose lineup on the first two albums featured two jazz musicians in Chris Poland and Gar Samuelson, while Testament guitarist, Alex Skolnick has released a number of albums in the genre and bands like Sigh and Shining (Norway) are making the connection clearer than ever before. One band that helped bring it to the extreme end of metal was born in Florida, arguably the home of death metal and they go by the name of Atheist.

The band began life in the city of Sarasota, originally using the name, Oblivion before changing it to, R.A.V.A.G.E. and then settling on the moniker, Atheist. It was founded by guitarist, Kelly Schaeffer and drummer, Steve Flynn, joined soon afterwards by vocalist, Steve Freid, another guitarist named, Rand Burkey and eventually by bass player, Roger Patterson. They slogged it out in the live scene for four years before finally recording their debut album, "Piece of Time," by which point, Freid had left the band and Schaeffer assumed the vocalist duties as well.

It had something of a convoluted release, owing to the label the group initially signed with going bankrupt and so the album was released in Europe by Active Records before a North American release could be sorted, something which would happen a year later when Metal Blade agreed a licensing deal with Active. The album itself was an impressive release. Though not quite as progressive in nature as their later albums, it still displayed some intelligent musicianship and has since gone on to be recognised as one of the best death metal albums of all time. Sadly, it was to be the band’s only release to feature Patterson, as the bassist was killed in a car accident in 1991.

Though he did not appear on the sophomore full length, "Unquestionable Presence," Patterson did write the majority of the bass lines, something of a guide for his replacement, former Cynic bass player, Tony Choy (who also worked with Dutch progressive death metal act, Pestilence that same year.) The album is now considered to be one of the very best in the field of technical death metal and one which really helped draw the attention of headbangers to the genre. It was the first Atheist release to display the jazz elements previously mentioned, creating some very interesting time signatures and rhythms in the process, some of the latter even taking influence from Latin music.

Despite the growing musicianship and critical acclaim coming their way, Atheist did actually disband in 1992, though they reconvened shortly after to fulfil their contractual obligations, recording and releasing their third album, "Elements" a year later. For an album that was recorded allegedly only because they had to, it was mightily impressive, increasing the jazz influences massively, as well as bringing the Latin tinges more to the forefront. It had something of a cleaner approach than the previous albums too and was notable for featuring three guitarists, as Frank Emmi had been brought in to perform the lead parts that Schaeffer no longer could as a result of carpal tunnel syndrome.

As intended, Atheist parted ways following the release of the record and went on to other endeavours. Perhaps most notably was Schaeffer’s new band, Neurotica, who released three albums and performed at the 2002 edition of Ozzfest alongside acts as Rob Zombie, Down and Drowning Pool, who Schaeffer would audition for following the death of their singer, Dave Williams and the dissolution of Neurotica. The Ozzfest commitment actually barred the attempted Atheist reunion which the singer attempted to stage with the surviving original members.

In 2006, Atheist finally did confirm their reunion, announcing their intentions to perform that Spring and Summer, though Schaeffer was now totally unable to perform guitar and so his parts were performed by Gnostic member, Sonny Carson, whose bandmate, Chris Baker was also brought in to replace Rand Burkey. Two years later, the singer confirmed that he and Flynn were working on new material together, which they began recording the next month. It was announced in 2010 that the new album would be entitled, "Jupiter," and that bassist Tony Choy was unable to perform on the album due to other commitments, though he was likely to return to the group in the near future.

The album itself was one that fans had been waiting seventeen years for, but ultimately it received something of a mixed reception, with the general consensus being that it was a very good album, but that it felt out of place in the Atheist catalogue. Five years on and the band are expected to release a fifth album later this year. Whether or not it continues where, “Jupiter” left off or if they try to recapture the sound of the older albums remains to be seen, but no one can deny that Atheist are one of the best, and most gifted bands, to ever perform technical death metal.

Atheist - "Piece of Time"

Atheist - "Room With a View"!

Atheist - "Unquestionable Presence"

Atheist - "An Incarnation's Dream"

Atheist - "Air"

Atheist - "Water"

Atheist - "Second to Sun"

Atheist - "Tortoise the Titan"

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Ollie Hynes has been a writer for Metal Underground.com since 2007 and a metal fan since 2001, going as far as to travel to other countries and continents for metal gigs.

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2 Comments on "Sunday Old School: Atheist"

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1. Ginnie Moon writes:

Great piece, as always! Cheers!

# Jun 14, 2015 @ 2:59 PM ET | IP Logged Reveal posts originating from the same IP address
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2. Diamond Oz writes:

Thanks, Ginnie! I'm glad you liked it!

# Jun 24, 2015 @ 9:26 AM ET | IP Logged Reveal posts originating from the same IP address

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