Live albums aren't always the most popular products on the market in this age of digital perfection. Only a scant number actually sound live and convey the primal essence of a band. But when you've got a live album of virtuoso musicians playing a style that somehow melds improvisation and compositional construction into a cohesive whole, the impact is pure dynamite. That's exactly what you get from "Unquestionable Presence: Live at Wacken", a dazzling eight-song set from ATHEIST, the reunited godfathers of technical death metal. A second disc entitled "Pieces of Time: Atheist 1988-1993" contains an 11-song retrospective personally compiled by Kelly Shaefer and Steve Flynn. A 24-page booklet with commentary from Shaefer and Flynn dealing with both the Wacken performance and each of the songs selected for the compilation disc is the icing on the cake.At 36 minutes the live performance may seem like it ends too soon, yet the urgency and intense precision with which the songs are played is palpable. Guitarists Chris Baker and Sonny Carson, vocalist Kelly Shaefer, bassist Tony Choy, and drummer Steve Flynn leave no note unturned and tear through a set that includes five songs from "Unquestionable Presence" and three from "Piece of Time", the absence of material from "Elements" presumably a combination of personal preference, set length, and fan demand, but I'm merely speculating. Most notable is that the performance is presented here in its raw, unedited glory, a fact that Flynn and Shaefer boast proudly about in the liner notes. In fact, it was never the act's intent to record the show. Although Shaefer shares that at a show the evening prior in Prague he "vocally blew it the fuck out" and wasn't able to rest the cords the following day, his delivery is hardly an issue; his tones are just harsher, which does nothing to detract from the musical tornado. The highlights are in the ear of the beholder, but one can't deny the playing of Choy and Flynn when they let loose during a break in "Mother Man". About the song Shaefer comments: "We have never flown with a net, so to speak; we don't use click tracks or any parameters of that sort, and each time this song is played live, it's like walking a tightrope with no net". It is that kind of tension and intensity that comes across on this live rendition. I might also add that "And the Psychic Saw" is a friggin' jam and a half, and "Piece of Time" is the perfect encore; it absolutely blazes. The retrospective disc is representative of each album released and does include three songs from "Elements", namely "Mineral", "Water", and "Air". Flynn notes about the rushed process (40 days!) for the "Elements" release: "This album embodies so much that is great and awful about our history and about the music industry in general." The remaining tracks are of course culled from "Piece of Time" and "Unquestionable Presence", the liner notes inclusive of facts about each song, which fans will find interesting and informative. I suppose one could complain about the shortness of the live disc or quibble about the song list on the second disc. For fans that already own the ATHEIST studio albums, you're really only getting a truncated live performance — a damn good one though — and some interesting commentary. All in all though, the two-disc set is a cool little package that includes a smashing live performance.
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