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POP MUSIC SPECIAL : Where Hip and Headbanging Meet : Faith No More are the kings of neo-metal, which is art music packaged for hard-rock teens. Even MTV has given the San Francisco band its blessing.

October 14, 1990|JONATHAN GOLD

On the morning of the recent MTV Video Awards, Faith No More's Roddy Bottum and Billy Gould are sitting in the back room of a West Hollywood pastry shop--sipping cappuccino under a Madonna poster and among a scattering of the kind of Hollywood rock dudes who consider themselves virtuous for getting out of bed before noon.

The video for Faith No More's breakthrough single "Epic" is up for MTV's hard-rock prize, but with their clean, long hair and regular-guy clothes, keyboardist Bottum and bassist Gould might be the least rock-looking people in the joint. They're more comfortable discussing the symbolism in Steve Erickson novels than loud guitars. And they seem fairly embarrassed that what they do is thought of as rock at all.

"We aren't a regular rock band," Bottum says, spooning up a bit of foam. "It's just kind of becoming that way . . ."

"By default, really," Gould adds. The two have been so closely connected since grammar school that they tend to finish one another's thoughts. "If you look at it at face value, it's loud music played for a lot of kids running around."

Rock crowds love Faith No More--so much so that its album, which has already been on the sales charts for eight months, is expected to remain in the Top 20 the rest of 1990. Its guitarist, Jim Martin--who once played in Vicious Hatred with late Metallica bassist Cliff Burton, and looks something like a cross between a lemur and ZZ Top--is, as Bottum says, "the quintessential rock dude."

"If we were all like Jim," Gould says, "I guess we'd be a heavy-metal band. If it were just us, it'd be more like . . ."

"Depeche Mode!" Bottum screams.

Faith No More couldn't be farther from the depressed electronicisms of that British band. For one thing, nobody's ever stage-dived at a Depeche Mode show. Depeche Mode isn't adored by readers of Thrasher magazine, either.

At the same time, Faith No More is a band with a punk-rock bassist, a classically trained keyboardist, a punk-funk singer and a drummer who would probably rather be playing Ghanaian tribal music, which goes a long way toward explaining the band's diversity. And, of course, there's heavy-metal Jim. Call what they do neo-metal.

Later that night during the live MTV telecast, Faith No More performs "Epic" brilliantly, but loses the award . . . to Aerosmith. Which is too bad, because Faith No More might be the first great rock band of the MTV generation.

"When we were starting out," Bottum remembers at the pastry shop, "we were playing these dive shows, and we'd dedicate songs to MTV, which we thought was the greatest thing in the world. Everybody hated us for it--MTV was like the ultimate satanic thing. But we watched it religiously."

"I sleep with MTV on," Gould says. "I wake up with it on and I keep it on when I leave the room. It's kind of like an

eternal flame."

Neo-metal looks like hard rock. It sounds like hard rock. It gets nominated for Grammys as hard rock . . . and loses to the likes of Metallica (which is all right) and Jethro Tull (which isn't).

In a crowded, sweaty arena, neo-metal smells like hard rock too. Along with rap, hard rock is the hippest stuff going--just ask Axl Rose--and this neo-metal hard rock seems to be the hippest of it all. Take a look at "Headbangers Ball."

Where recent hard-rock bands have drawn on an extremely limited set of influences, from Black Sabbath to Aerosmith and back again, this new wave of American neo-metal was spawned in the punk and alternative scenes, loud guitars and all. It's hard rock stripped of its lower-middle-class taint; it's art music packaged for hard-rock teens. Neo-metal's crossover demographic seems custom-made for MTV.

Critics and college-radio audiences adore the stuff; so do headbangers. Neo-metal bands--Primus, Soundgarden, Jane's Addiction--are likely to throw a rap song or a funk groove at you when you least expect it. Heck, some of these bands don't even own Zeppelin LPs. And none of them consider themselves part of a movement.

If the "movement" had a leader (which it doesn't), a Metallica or a Sex Pistols against which all the other bands could be measured, at this point it would have to be Faith No More.

While neo-metal bands don't sound a lot like each other, most of them sound at least a little like Faith No More. (Faith No More can sometimes remind you of Anthrax or the Red Hot Chili Peppers, but can also sometimes sound like Hall & Oates.) And after bumping around the underground circuit for most of the last decade, Faith No More recently hit with "Epic," a trademark conglomeration of speed-metal, soaring, middle-of-the-road pop and white-boy rap that's probably one of the roughest-edged things ever to be popular with 8-year-olds.

The surreal MTV video pushed "Epic" up the singles chart, and the single pulled Faith No More's album, "The Real Thing," up with it. After eight years in the trenches, Faith No More became an overnight success.

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