One Random Single a Day #49: “Ashes to Ashes” (1997) by Faith No More


If there’s anything that I’ve been disappointed in with this One Random Single challenge thus far (well, apart from the fact that I’ve been barely writing about women – you can expect another week of me reviewing only ladies coming up real soon!), it’s the fact that I’ve been primarily writing about American bands and musicians. The whole point of the challenge is, I think, to broaden my tastes and get introduced to entirely new bands and musical traditions that I’ve never embarked upon before. Instead, as I approach my 60th song review, it’s ended up that a full half of the artists I’ve reviewed have been American. I guess there’s no real way to ensure a perfect system when letting a biased randomizer select a single, especially when the randomizer comes from an American website under probably American creators.

In any case, at least the American band I’ve stumbled upon today is an interesting one! Faith No More is a rock band that was initially formed in 1979 under the name Sharp Young Men. They’ve gone through a number of lineup changes throughout the whole course of their career, with the longest standing staples of the group being Mike Borden (drummer), Roddy Bottum (keyboards), and Billy Gould (bassist). While they had some minor success on MTV in the mid-80s under vocalist Mosley, it was when they replaced Mosley with the eccentric Mike Patton that things really started to take off. Ten years after forming, they found themselves with their first (and only) top ten hit “Epic” off their album The Real Thing, which would go on to snag a Grammy nomination. Now, pardon me while I lose myself in thoughts of a time when a weird, alternative funk-metal song could actually have a chance at making the Hot 100 top ten…

The years following The Real Think would prove them to achieve relatively minor success, but they still remained pretty consistent all the way up until their initial breakup in 1998 (they would reunite and 2009 and remain together to this day). Their 1997 album Album of the Year was the final record before the disbanding, also the last of the group until their 2015 album Sol Invictus. “Ashes to Ashes” was their most successful single from the album – not that it was very successful in the first place, initially receiving the worst reviews of their career. The sonic atmosphere of the track, with its heavy guitar and drums and aggressive, mournful vocals from Patton, falls very much in line with the grunge tradition of rock which, admittedly, was starting to lose some steam at this point.

I read part of an interview with Patton where, when questioned about his tendency toward cryptic lyricisms, he stated that he never intends on his lyrics to mean much of anything and he often “chooses the words because of the rhythm, not because of the meaning”. A reading of the first verse of this song alone immediately makes it clear: “I want them to know it’s me / It’s on my head / I’ll point the finger at me / It’s on my head”. Who is “them”? Why do they need to know who he is? What’s on his head?? It’s clear that this song defies any and all meaning whatsoever, and to try to decipher this would be spending more time on meaning and significance than I’m sure the entirety of Faith No More have. I actually really like the main choral hook of the song: “Smiling with the mouth of the ocean / And I’ll wave to you with the arms of the mountain”. I have no idea what the fuck that means, but it is kind of a lovely image.

One major standout aspect of this track is, of course, Patton’s vocal performance. The low, dark, musty tone he demonstrates during the low-key verses are a complete polar opposite from the rousing chorus, during which he powerfully sings an octave or two higher. Propelled by quite an attention-grabbing guitar riff, his vocal ability here is pretty impressive, especially considering that so many alternative/hard rock bands often manage to get away with far less. However, even though Patton pretty much brought into the band all the strange quirks that Faith No More is often known for, this track is no good example of that. This could have been handed over to any other hard rock band coming into prominence in the mid-90s and would have resulted in equal or better results.

And I gotta say it – I like a bit of meaning in my songs. The enigmatic lyrics that tend to come with the band are also exactly what draws me away from their music; I wished I liked “Epic” as much as everyone else does, but it’s just so dumb. At least a song like “Falling to Pieces” follows a general theme (as vague as it is) set alongside a strong production backing. This one has decent production and strong separate elements, but when they all coalesce it doesn’t don’t seem to form anything particularly exceptional. I guess this is cool if you don’t care for lyrics and just want something cool-sounding and rockin’ to listen and maybe sing along to. There are really so many other better songs, though.

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