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The greatest liability that Cancer had from their very inception, in the eyes of most of their critics, is that they were never a pioneering band. It's not to say that they were overtly unoriginal, but that they pretty much rode the coattails of other bands who had established the sound that they were going for a few years prior in the Florida death metal revolution of the late 80s. While there is some truth to the assertion that they've always had a sound in common with a number of better known bands, they always wore it as a strength by presenting their style in the most intricate and exciting way possible. Ironically enough, this even managed to hold true to a large degree with their panned commercial metal attempt in "Black Faith", an album that is truly a product of its time.
There is no room for interpretation insofar as this album is concerned, "Black Faith" is, from start to finish, a groove metal album in the most unsubtle of ways. The level of "Burn My Eyes", "Sound Of White Noise" and Vulgar Display Of Power" influence on this album is evident to the point of sheer groove metal classicism, as if the album has sought to box itself into a mid 90s cliché of its own style, and somehow manages to come out better that each of these better known albums. This has no stylistic connection whatsoever with the death metal sound of Cancer's past, in fact it sounds exactly the way a band that played Bay Area thrash metal would sound upon transitioning into a groove sound, as opposed to the consequential death n' roll sound of Six Feet Under and Entombed where the guttural barks and muddier guitar tone was maintained in the stylistic transition.
Why it is that this album doesn't come off as annoyingly mediocre or downright revolting in comparison to its influences is actually fairly subtle, and mostly revolves in aspects of the mid 90s sound that are systematically avoided on here. The most obvious liability that is skipped over is the exaggerated tough guy gruff shout heard all over Pantera's work from this time period, as well as the nasally Layne Staley clean singing. Instead, the vocal character tends to be more of a traditional thrash gruff with maybe a hint of the soulful character of the Cyclone Tempe vocal sound, although occasionally John Walker does bring out his older guttural barks, particularly on the doom-like crusher "Without Cause", which is actually one of the better songs on here despite a really static and plodding riff approach. Similarly, the guitar tone retains a level of crunch and stomp to it from the Scott Burns days, though the riffing style has been slowed down, simplified, and even adorned with some of the open-chord ideas that were brought in by the still active grunge scene.
While definitely a cut above most of its class and an album that largely manages to entertain in spite of itself, "Black Faith" is mired in a lot of the usual problems that tend to come in with this era. There is this sense as though the music is restrained, as though it wants to go faster and just cut loose, if even for the shorter and less frequent bursts that were common in the early 90s thrash sound as typified in Vio-Lence's "Nothing To Gain" and Evildead's "The Underworld". Things do pick up quite a bit towards the middle of this album, particularly on the slightly Motorhead oriented cruiser "Kill Date", which also happens to be the best song on this album in terms of riff work and overall memorability, literally to the point of contradicting the Pantera and Machine Head influences (though it does come off somewhat similar to some of the material heard on the latter's recent offering "Unto The Locust"). But for the most part, this album doesn't really allow itself to have too much fun and seems to find itself stuck in mid-tempo land for about 75% of the time, even though it definitely sounds like it wants to.
This is a difficult album to fully wrap a recommendation around, primarily because it will most likely come off to Pantera and Machine Head enthusiasts as being a little too thrashing and complex for what they are used to, but it also doesn't quite get the job done for old school thrash fans who still liked the style come 1991 but didn't after 1992. It's far from being terrible, but it can't quite manage to force itself to be frenetic enough to rope in even conventional Metallica fans, though there is definitely some massive "Black Album" influences on this. For some reason I occasionally find myself listening to it, even though it is massively inferior to this band's previous works. It's not worthy of the band's legacy, yet it doesn't do much to outright shame it either.
The following is a direct quote from the additonal notes in Cancer's Metal Archives entry:
"Cancer's early material was pure death metal, then they progressed to a thrashier sound on "The Sins Of Mankind" and finally a strange attempt at going mainstream on "Black Faith"".
If this is true -and I have no reason to doubt it- that single sentence explains both the positive and the negative things i found on the Black Faith. I have never heard any other works by Cancer, and therefore, I cannot tell if the information is correct or not, but when I read it after listening the album a dozen times, it opened a new point of view on the music. It really explains a lot.
I bought the album, like so many albums before and after it, second hand from a used record store. The decision to purchase it was based on the names of both the band and the album, and a vague recollection of death or thrash metal in some sort of relation to the band. The stupid cover art made me hesitate, but eventually I walked out of the store with the Black Faith, and shoved it straight into the CD player in the car. I was in for an initial disappointment, then curiosity, and finally irritation. That irritation lasted until I saw the additional notes in the MA, and now it has turned into understanding and peaceful illumination.
You see, the idea I got from the initial spin was that the band wants to play death-tinged thrash, but is too timid and nerdy to really let go and thrash. There was a feeling of going for a drive with a tuned car and trying to speed a bit on a highway, but having the parking brake partially stuck and impossible to release. The will to go faster is there, and the engine has all the needed horsepower, but something in the whole slows the reckless business of racing down and takes away the fun. The joyoys cruise turns into a everyday drive to work, and even the finest Ferrari loses most of its appeal when you're sitting in a traffic jam. That is the downside of Black Faith.
The album is not slow. Not by a long shot. It pushes forward almost all the way in a Motörhead-like beat, and definitely avoids stalling. But when the beats-per-minute is correlated with the technical and skilled playing and the style of the riffing, it suddenly seems to slow down and makes one wait for the faster parts of the song to arrive. This is not mainstream metal, this is thrash, slowed down. Someone has had a misguided idea that slowing down equals turning mainstream (and maybe selling truckloads of CDs?). That is not even close to the truth. It's obvious that these guys know how to play, and that they're used to playing fast and furiously. Then someone tells them to slow down, and while the band's effort is valiant, that unnamed someone forgets to tell them to play mainstream metal in a mainstream way. The result is logically a tragedy: most of the album sounds like that slow part in the middle of a death or thrash track that belongs in so many of our favourite songs. There are signs of unfortunate holding back and involuntary restraint in the band's performance. Somehow I believe that there was a suppressed will to go faster and angrier, but something from the Twilight Zone stopped them. This album is almost 47 minutes long; it should have been played in about 35 minutes. Both the music and the band obviously want to go faster and angrier. They were both certainly built to go faster. Fortunately, all is not lost.
The sound on the album is generally good. The guitars have a fleshy tone that would fit a death metal album perfectly, and the drums are nicely thrashy. The bass, excellently audible and doing nice little things throughout the album, fits the drums perfectly in a way that many thrash bands would love to achieve. The only problem, soundwise, is in the vocals. I don't know how Mr. Walker did his preceding thrash and death vocals, but these have once again the annoying tone of holding back, and the result is something along the lines of Tommy Victor of Prong. While Victor's mumbling fits Prong's angst, here the same style leaves much to be desired. I'm willing to believe that the man can growl, if necessary. In addition to the annoying way to sing, the voice has been manipulated and distorted, and that is rarely a good idea.
The music itself sends mixed and confusing signals. The songwriting contains no special treats as far as complete songs go, but within the three quarters of an hour there are masses of nice riffs and fascinating minor structures. There's brilliance, but you must look for it, it doesn't want to be heard. Possibly this is a case of babies switched in the hospital; somewhere there's a Mötley Crue carbon copy band, trying to be a death metal band without any riffs whatsoever, and someone is wondering why they can't just make another Girls, Girls, Girls instead of trying to sound like a demented, riffless Morbid Angel. And all the while these poor, misguided geniuses of thrash feebly try to become the next mainstream success, whatever mainstream means in this context. Oh well.
Two of the tracks are curiosities. The first one is the seventh, Temple Song, that actually is an atmospheric two and a half minute ambient synth intro for the title track of the album. It is, surprisingly, more interesting than Black Faith itself. The other one is either a treat or sacrilege, depending on your opinions on covering Deep Purple; it's the classic Space Truckin', in my opinion nicely rejuvenated, groovy, and moderately more aggressive than the original. I think it shows considerable respect and pays nice homage to the old masters of hard rock. Unfortunately, the distortion of the vocals reaches its peak on this track, and that, in one word, sucks.
There's a way to enjoy this album: forget the songs and just listen to the technical brilliance that wants to get out to bang your head to pulp. There's enough of that to make Black Faith worth your while. This album was a semi-intentional mistake, but still has enough good things for me to promise that I'll buy any earlier Cancer releases I happen to find second hand. And this promise, ladies and gentlemen, is based on two things: the fact that these guys must be wonderful when let loose, and that single sentence on the Metal Archives that kind of promises release for the trapped potential, strangely on the earlier works of the band instead of the later ones. This album, indeed, is a strange attempt at going mainstream.