When the members of Faith No More took the stage of the Wiltern for the first of three concerts last month, they didn't warm up the crowd with one of their old hits. Instead, the reunited hard-rock band opened with a new song from an album that hadn't even come out yet; what's more, the tune featured keyboardist Roddy Bottum on vocals rather than the group's recognizable frontman, Mike Patton.
Oh, and the song's title — well, it isn't printable here.
"The choice was a bit unorthodox," Bottum said. "But I think it set a tone."
A slow-building dirge with words about smallpox blankets and a cup made of bones, the song — also the first track released from "Sol Invictus," Faith No More's first album since 1997 — indeed underscored that this famously antagonistic outfit hadn't lost its contrarian streak. (Ditto the band's stage setup at the Wiltern, where it performed amid elaborate floral arrangements that were hardly in keeping with conventional hard-rock aesthetics.)
Twenty-five years ago, that taste for provocation made unlikely MTV stars out of long-haired Patton and his bandmates, beginning with "Epic," the left-field 1990 hit with the music video featuring a flopping fish out of water and an exploding piano. Faith No More went on to record a deranged prog-metal masterpiece in 1992's "Angel Dust" only to follow that with a straight-faced cover of the Commodores' velvety R&B hit "Easy" — proudly unpredictable moves that influenced young acts like System of a Down and Deftones.
But if the group is still tweaking expectations today, the world around it has changed significantly. Where Faith No More once defined itself in opposition to a rock mainstream it viewed as a kind of macho wasteland, that rock mainstream has now all but disappeared. And the rock bands that do matter — Muse, Foo Fighters, Queens of the Stone Age — originated on the same sort of fringes that Faith No More did.
For a group of self-styled misfits, then, what does it mean to no longer look like rebels?
"It means we're just us now," said bassist Bill Gould. "And that's a good thing. It means we can do anything we want."
Gathered with Patton and Bottum for coffee in West Hollywood the day after the Wiltern show, the bassist acknowledged that Faith No More used to draw a great deal of energy from happily pushing back against others' ideas of what it should sound like and how it should behave — an effective tactic for musicians as varied as the Sex Pistols and Britney Spears. "But it's not the only way," Gould said.
These days, Patton added, "We don't have to think about being different anymore. Wherever inspiration leads us, that's OK."
You can hear that freedom on "Sol Invictus," due Tuesday on the group's own Reclamation Recordings. Though it's full of unexpected twists — the country-tinged "Rise of the Fall," for instance, and the funky wah-wah break in "Sunny Side Up" — the album doesn't make a big deal about its eccentricities; it's not trying to impress you with its weirdness the way Faith No More's earlier work sometimes seemed to be doing.
"Laid-back" definitely isn't the way to describe a record that includes the rumbling "Separation Anxiety" and "Superhero," a shouty goth-metal jam. But like "The Magic Whip" — the strong comeback record just released by another important alternative-era band, Blur — "Sol Invictus" has a certain calm to it, a confident precision that could be the result of its long gestation.
Formed in the early '80s in San Francisco by Gould, Bottum and drummer Mike Bordin, Faith No More toiled for years in the underground, cycling through various singers and guitarists and eventually scoring a minor hit with "We Care a Lot," featuring Chuck Mosley on vocals. In 1989, Patton replaced Mosley, expanding the band's sound (as well as its proto-grunge sex appeal). "The Real Thing," Faith No More's first album with Patton, went platinum, and other successes followed across three more studio albums. By 1998, though, the members were burned out and called it quits.
Everyone stayed busy over the decade to come: Bottum played with his sly indie-pop band Imperial Teen; Bordin toured as Ozzy Osbourne's drummer; Patton ran his adventurous record label Ipecac and collaborated with everyone from Dan the Automator to John Zorn. But in 2009, encouraged by a positive meet-up at Bottum's wedding in L.A., the musicians reconvened Faith No More (including the band's final guitarist, Jon Hudson) for a world tour that ended up lasting three years.
Today Gould insists the band wasn't looking to satisfy fans' nostalgia with the reunion shows. "It was more about us reconnecting with one another," he said.
Still, with only old songs to play, a feeling of stasis ultimately settled over the group. "You can only play stuff from 20 or 30 years ago for so long," Patton said. If Faith No More was to go on, the members decided, they needed new material. So work commenced at Gould's studio in Oakland, each man bringing in songs and parts of songs that cohered with surprising ease. The process was more open and collaborative than it had been in the '90s, according to Bottum; people were less protective of their parts.
"And I think the music shows that," the keyboardist said. "There's some space in it. It sounds like people stepping back and letting it breathe a little bit."
That feeling has extended to the road, said Patton, who described the band's recent shows — in which Faith No More has been playing a good-sized chunk of "Sol Invictus" — as more "fresh" than those in the last go-round. (The group will spend much of the summer on the European festival circuit before returning to the U.S. for headlining shows including a gig in August at New York's Madison Square Garden.)
"I know that's a weird word to use after so many years," he admitted with a laugh.
"How about 'defrosted'?" Gould offered, then said he felt the same way. "There was a kind of weight before, and now it's all coming more easily."
At the Wiltern, the band took obvious pleasure in performing its new tunes, particularly the ominous title track from "Sol Invictus," which Bottum introduced by telling the crowd to forget everything it had heard from the group and to "begin again."
Yet Faith No More also came alive in an affectionate cover of "This Guy's in Love With You," the Burt Bacharach/Hal David song, and a retooled version of its early-'90s hit "Midlife Crisis" that morphed into Boz Scaggs' white-soul classic "Lowdown."
Those easy-breezy selections were, of course, providing a jolt of perversity before an audience filled with aggressive haircuts and black leather jackets. But it's worth noting that the band played the heck out of the songs; they weren't included just to rile anybody up.
"I got a text from a friend this morning, a guy that I really trust," Patton said the day after the concert. "He goes, 'Best part of the show was Boz Scaggs.'
"It's a good song. I appreciated that."