Atheist - Unquestionable Presence
Active Records
Technical, Progressive Death / Thrash, Jazz Fusion
8 songs (32:25)
Release year: 1991
Reviewed by Kyle

Progressive metal is more of an art form than I think most people realize. The goal of technical or progressive music is not to play the most insanely complex and incomprehensible music imaginable; it’s to do so while keeping a sense of actual song STRUCTURE at all times. As a reviewer, I’ve come across a few progressive bands that, while entertaining based upon their level of complexity alone, are ultimately unmemorable in the end because their actual songwriting skills weren’t up to snuff. Though I’ve only been a metal fan for around four years or so, I share many an old fart’s belief that the best metal has already been made, though all the same, I find it ironic that most older progressive bands have the style of chaos blended with cohesion down pat when so many modern bands have failed to learn from their example; there is no greater example of flawless technicality than Atheist’s second album, Unquestionable Presence. Released in 1991, this album not only showed greater maturity than and improved upon (though some thrash-heads may tell you otherwise) their debut Piece of Time, but it simultaneously set the standard for technical death metal that has never, ever been successfully imitated.

For those uninitiated with Atheist, all you really need to know is that, along with Death, they are THE technical death / thrash metal band of the 20th century (and as soon as their comeback album arrives, the 21st century). They are undoubtedly one of those special bands where EVERYTHING they do sticks in your mind like flypaper, whether it be their gorgeous album covers, classic song titles, or of course, the music itself. Unquestionable Presence features one of the most talented and creative line-ups in a metal band I’ve ever heard; from Kelly Shaefer’s instantly recognizable raspy snarl to Steve Flynn’s jaw-dropping drum work, Atheist’s sound is simply impenetrable, thanks in part to a wonderfully audible bass guitar and lead guitar lines from Rand Burkey and the aforementioned Shaefer that are always – ALWAYS – flowing. No lazy power chords for Atheist here; aside from an acoustic segment or two (see An Incarnation’s Dream) and frequent breaks to show off a groovy bass line or drum fill, Unquestionable Presence is brilliant madness from beginning to end. But as I said before, it’s controlled madness; each song typically carries one central riff throughout, molding it constantly from the first seconds of the track to the last, morphing it into something far more complex by the time the song’s end arrives. If a brilliant man somehow willingly made himself go insane in a controlled environment, Unquestionable Presence may come close to what an interpretation of his thoughts would sound like.

The music itself is a bit hard to describe to those who the band is foreign to; the drums and many of the complex rhythms are definitely rooted in jazz, but as the rest of the music is almost entirely metal, it makes Unquestionable Presence an extremely well-balanced jazz-fusion album that will (and has for nearly twenty years) appeal to nearly every thrash or death-head out there. As for the songs themselves, each is practically a classic in their own right; while the tracks aren’t exactly incredibly diverse, each one is utterly memorable and they all manage to not blend into each other. And somehow, they are all also unique. Mother Man is the classic kick-off song (one of the best openers to a metal album ever, in my opinion), rife with technicality in the beginning before featuring traditional thrash elements later on. The Formative Years is the song here that’s closest to traditional thrash, though the lead guitar-driven portions ensure that a death metal influence stays intact throughout. And the Psychic Saw, the album’s closer, is perhaps the best song Atheist ever wrote; the tempo is ever-fluctuating, and the riffs are intense and occasionally atmospheric, drawing you in from the very first notes and keeping you involved until the end. But, in truth, these things could be said for just about every song on the album; Unquestionable Presence feels like a very natural and mature experience all the way through, partly because of the masterful lyrics covering subjects ranging from nature to society, and some of the weirder melodies that are sprinkled throughout add an endearing quality to it that is damn irresistible. Reviewers say this often about particularly good albums, but this truly is like candy for the ears.

Sometimes when I write a classic review the topic is brought up of “Should this really qualify as a classic album?”, but this time around it should be unanimous that Unquestionable Presence belongs in this site’s “Classics” section because of its musicianship, originality, and of course, influence and legacy. Countless technical death metal bands have carried on the torch that Atheist passed on all those years ago; this is especially recognizable in the 21st century, where many new great (and sometimes incredible) tech death bands are emerging to help make this legacy survive. Add the fact that Atheist was so very influential in the death metal community to the reality that Unquestionable Presence was simply one of the best albums ever made in the genre – and one of the first technical death metal albums ever – and you have a bonafide classic that was (and still is) ages ahead of its time.

Killing Songs :
Kyle quoted CLASSIC
Other albums by Atheist that we have reviewed:
Atheist - Jupiter reviewed by Charles and quoted 85 / 100
Atheist - Piece of Time reviewed by Aaron and quoted 77 / 100
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