A Bouncing Little Baby, A Shiny Copper Penny: Faith No More’s Angel Dust at 30

Why this beautiful, terrifying, schizophrenic masterpiece of a record remains their high water mark

Faith No More Angel Dust promo poster (Image: Rhino Records)

1992 was indeed quite a weird and wild year for heavy music.

Seattle’s “Class of 1991” (Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Soundgarden) had thrown open the gate to airplay for down-tuned, tortured, punk-and-classic-rock indebted riffage. And while those bands (and others) would seem to have saturated the zeitgeist, the Billboard charts at the time tell a different story. Other than two non-consecutive weeks where Nirvana’s Nevermind topped the charts, it was business as usual in the music world. While much has been made about Nirvana bumping Michael Jackson from the #1 spot, the year was dominated by not one but TWO Garth Brooks records and Billy Ray Cyrus.

And, remember how grunge signaled the death knell of hair metal? Def Leppard must not have gotten that fax, because their Adrenalize spent four consecutive weeks at numero uno. If it weren’t for a strong first week showing from the Black Crowes’ sophomore effort The Southern Harmony and Musical Companion, you’d barely know that rock was even breathing.  

Bubbling under the surface, however, was a strain of heavy music that the major labels were banking on repeating Nirvana’s success. Helmet signed a reported million-dollar deal and released the punishing Meantime. Texas groove monsters Pantera released A Vulgar Display of Power, an album that would change the trajectory for metal and heavy music for the remainder of the 1990s (imagine if Metallica had not heard the record…it’s almost certain that their output would have been drastically better, er, different!) And Ministry, once the most dangerous industrial act in the world, finally managed to cross over with a paean to Jesus souping up our collective hotrod, and all we could do was ding a ding dang my dang a long ling long. The culture seemed ready for something heavy and weird. 

Perhaps, however, it wasn’t quite ready for what Faith No More was about to birth – a beautiful, terrifying, schizophrenic masterpiece of a record called Angel Dust. Reportedly named by keyboardist Roddy Bottum because of the duality of the beauty of the words and the ugliness of the drug it represents, the title perfectly encapsulates the music within. Metal and alternative music fans who were expecting the simple, catchy rap-metal fusion of 1989’s The Real Thing were agog at what they encountered. In the intervening years, frontman Mike Patton (whose addition to the band late in the recording process of The Real Thing necessitated that he simply sing the words and melodies as written) had seemingly lost his goddamn mind and his vocals vacillated from beautiful melodies to guttural howls and all sorts of shrieks and moans, much of this prompted by a sojourn back to his original band Mr. Bungle.  

The id of the band had gotten loose, and in response the music became stranger and more elastic. Brutal exercises like “Caffeine” sat uncomfortably close to country-and-western satires like “RV” and the sample-heavy dance-rock of “A Small Victory”. Released as its first single, “Midlife Crisis” set the tone of Angel Dust for listeners – Patton’s whispered slavering over Bottum’s cinematic keys and drummer Mike Bordin’s insistent pounding in the verses slam into Billy Gould’s bass and Jim Martin’s inimitable guitar chug in the soaring chorus. And the bridge is a series of samples? This was worlds away from the funk-metal of “Out of Nowhere” or the silly rap of “Epic”. Those who were only familiar with the band from their MTV exposure were puzzled by an album that contained songs with titles like “Jizzlobber” and “Crack Hitler” and certainly weren’t sure what to do with a straight cover of the “Theme From Midnight Cowboy”. The album debuted at #10 on the Billboard album charts (still its highest charting album) but quickly plummeted, ultimately selling only half of what its predecessor did.  

Mirroring the dysfunction of the album’s songs were the tense sessions that wrought them – Patton, Gould, Bordin and Bottum were thrilled and rejuvenated by the ability to work past the limitations of the past three albums. Jim Martin, on the other hand, was dissatisfied with these new directions and contributed little in the studio, sometimes not showing up altogether. By the end of the tour cycle for Angel Dust (a series of shows that would include being the opening act on the massive Metallica/Guns ‘N Roses stadium jaunt) Martin was gone. The musical core that had been together since 1983 was broken. He hasn’t performed (and barely spoken) with them since. 

While Angel Dust didn’t live up to the sales expectations of Warner Bros, its challenging mix of styles caught the ears of many up-and-coming underground bands. Groups like KoRn, Deftones, Dog Fashion Disco, Slipknot and Ghost all have pieces of the album inside their DNA. In some ways, Angel Dust is responsible (for better and worse) for helping to create the nu-metal movement of the late-90s and early aughts. Today, it’s near-universally cited as fans’ favorite album from the band. And as one of those fans, it’s as thrilling to listen to now as it was confounding upon its release.

Bassist Billy Gould, in addition to his role as bassist/songwriter/de-facto leader of Faith No More, has carved out a niche as a purveyor of different world music.  His label, Kool Arrow (koolarrow.com) highlights some of the most interesting and challenging music from Chile to Moscow and is the home of his own non-FNM forays into music, like the brilliant collective The Talking Book.  Bill was kind enough to field questions from his home base in the Mission district of San Francisco and offer up remembrances of the creation of Angel Dust. 


Angel Dust is an almost defiantly challenging pop record. Coming off of the success of The Real Thing, was there pressure from the label to make the follow-up more accessible? 

Billy Gould: To be fair, we didn’t receive any critical or creative pressure from the label while we were writing the album, their approach was more to give us as much space as needed to “do what we do”. And this is what we did. Once it was finished, we were made more aware of the challenges. 

 

This was the first record that Mike Patton was onboard for the entire album gestation and had free reign lyrically.  What was your writing process like? 

BG: We all had a hand in that record, and our process was generally that we used whatever process worked. Balance has always been a big issue for us–power through dynamics and contrast, so a different approach to a particular song was usually welcome. Of course, that’s all easier said than done, and it was a lot of work. Mike was a bit younger than us and came from a different place in some areas musically, so he brought some things into the picture that we probably wouldn’t have done on our own; somethings took a little getting used to, while others really elevated our ideas.

Faith No More Angel Dust, Slash/Reprise 1992

It’s no secret that (guitarist) Jim Martin wasn’t thrilled with the expanded palette that the band was experimenting with. How did that impact the writing and recording?  

BG: Well, we had always had a bit of creative tension with Jim, but in previous albums we managed to find enough common ground to all sign off at the end and be satisfied. But it was becoming apparent on this album that we were growing apart in a way that couldn’t be fixed. So, there were few moments where he was genuinely excited, which is a real shame in my opinion, for him and for us. It took some of the fun out of it, and probably extended the recording/writing process, timewise.

 

Apocryphally, it’s been rumored that you played many of the guitar parts.  I wouldn’t be doing my due diligence if I didn’t ask – is there truth to that? 

BG: I had a big hand in the writing of the album, and some guitar parts came with that, but Jim recorded everything, and did it his way. The only guitar I played on that album was the high texture in “Midlife Crisis.”

 

What’re your most inedible memories from your time in the studio and on tour for the record? (I saw the tour leg with Helmet opening in Buffalo, and I very vividly remember Patton doing something, erm, unsavory with the microphone)

BG: I have some great memories of that time. We were young and we were all about pushing things as hard as we could, which led to a lot of crazy shows, experiences, travel. At the same time, for the first time, we also had a little bit of money in our pockets, so the world was opening up to us in a big way. There were some dark times, no doubt, but the general feeling for me was just a massive deluge of experiences. Just a crazy adventure.

 

Is there one story that sticks out from the time?

BG: Okay, so the recording began with an ominous start. We recorded at Coast Recorders on Mission St. in San Francisco. On the first day we arrive, we loaded in the gear and could not find the box with all of the samples. I mean ALL of Roddy’s samples that he had made over X amount of years. We couldn’t find it anywhere and people started to worry. Our drum tech Feelie went outside and a homeless guy came up to him and said “I have something you have been looking for”.

He followed the guy into a transient hotel around the corner and into his room, and the box of samples was sitting right there. The guy started getting agitated and ranting and it got a little weird; Feelie panicked and just grabbed the box and started running…and then we were back in business! 

 

Many of your fans hold Angel Dust as their favorite Faith No More record and it’s the one that’s most often recommend to beginners as a gateway into the band. Why do you think the record holds such sway 30 years later? 

BG: The older I get, the more I realize that most people listen to our music differently than we do, so it’s impossible to understand the “why” of its longevity. It was different from most thing at the time, including our previous releases, so God knows we created more than a few obstacles for ourselves. The only thing that makes sense to me is that, somehow, the heart we put into it found its way to people on a basic human level. 

 

VIDEO: Faith No More “A Small Victory”

Additionally, with Angel Dust being such a sonic departure from the band’s previous work, it seemed natural to reach out to their producer and long-time collaborator Matt Wallace for some perspective on the sessions. Wallace is a producer extraordinaire, helming records from the Replacements (including overseeing the incredible Dead Man’s Pop box set) to Maroon Five, and has recently dived headfirst into the world of Dolby Atmos, remixing works of his into the bleeding edge spatial audio format. Busy guy that he is, he gamely offered up some brief memories about the recording side of Angel Dust.

 

You’d worked with Faith No More since more or less the beginning. What was your impression when you first heard the material for Angel Dust? 

Matt Wallace: The material was a departure from their previous album, The Real Thing, and it was coincidental that I, as their co-conspirator, had, on my own, wanted to distance myself from the sonic quality of The Real Thing. I felt that it was too compressed and with too much high frequency content and my goal was to make a more high-fidelity record, with more low frequency content and much better dynamics.

 

Angel Dust has a much more varied and in almost cinematic sound to it. I’m assuming that Warner Bros provided a larger studio budget given the success of The Real Thing. Did that allow you and the band the ability to expand the sonic palette? 

MW: While it’s true that Warner Brothers did provide a larger studio budget for Angel Dust compared to The Real Thing, what drove the expansion of the band’s sonic palette was actually their general approach of not repeating themselves musically. The fact that they wanted to make a very different record was the impetus, the driving force, not the fact that there was a larger budget because we would have made Angel Dust irrespective of available funds.

 

The album also utilizes a lot of samples, a first for the band. Whose idea was that? 

MW: Roddy was the person who pushed for the use of samples, primarily because he had an EMAX sampling keyboard and, so, he decided to expand the variety of available sounds well beyond what he had used before. During The Real Thing he had the same keyboard but, because it was relatively new (as I remember), he hadn’t yet spent the time learning how to sample and manipulate the sounds until Angel Dust.

 

It’s pretty well-known that Jim Martin (guitarist) wasn’t thrilled with the direction of the new material. What was the mood like in the studio?  

MW: The mood was generally tense because of the fact that 4/5ths of the band was excited about the new direction while Jim wasn’t keen on the new direction. The problem arose when he didn’t show up during rehearsals, which is a time when existing musical ideas each band member has would be brought up, played, and, over time, honed into a sound and direction that all band members agreed on. So, while he wasn’t thrilled with the direction, he also, from my perspective, didn’t seem to want to participate during the writing and rehearsing process.

 

What are some of your most memorable experiences from that time?

MW: It seemed that most of the band was eager to push boldly into a new direction, there seemed to be a lot of excitement and creative input by 4/5ths of the members. I also remember Mike Patton seeming 4/5ths of the members. I also remember Mike Patton seeming to be fully invested in AD because this was the first FNM record he worked on where he was an integral member from inception to completion. He was able to make comments about arrangements, he had his own songs to bring in, and he was always very prepared to sing lead and harmony vocals.

 

Angel Dust is many fans’ favorite Faith No More record and it’s the one that’s most often recommended to beginners as a gateway into the band. Why do you think the record holds such sway 30 years later? 

MW: It was a groundbreaking album upon its release in 1992; it was a very unique listening experience so listeners either loved it or hated it, and so many bands – KoRn, System of a Down, Hoobastank, and more – all expressed their enthusiasm for the album.

 

Tangentially, you and Will Kennedy have recently completed Dolby Atmos remixes of “Epic” and “Midlife Crisis.” Can you explain the format/process and what makes those songs particularly good choices for spatial audio?  

MW: While not every album released prior to the onset of Atmos/Spatial Audio lends itself to the much larger sound field and, it can be argued, some albums almost ‘collapse’ when spread out too wide, However, Faith No More’s music seems really ‘open up’ nicely in Atmos probably because their music can, at times, have tremendous layers and depth, and it can be argued that stereo mixes didn’t always serve their songs’ intentions.

Because the musicians in FNM can, in general, all want to play 100% of the time, resulting in some very dense stereo mixes, this approach fortunately means that they’re well suited for Atmos because they have a lot of parts and ideas to move around the Atmos sound field.

 

 

 

 

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One thought on “A Bouncing Little Baby, A Shiny Copper Penny: Faith No More’s Angel Dust at 30

  • June 9, 2022 at 2:59 pm
    Permalink

    Angel Dust is not the
    unanimous fave among fans.

    Reply

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