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I’m Listening To Death Metal: In Caverns And Wells/Unquestionable Presence

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By 2005, I was well-entrenched within the metal world. I was 16 — a junior in high school — that magical time period where you have enough scratch money available that you can lavish yourself with video games and films and books and records, if you so choose. I was a rambunctious kid, but most of my mischief those days was of the free sort; I grew up in Spotsylvania, which was a semi-rural county of Virginia then, having little but Civil War battlefields, long winding roads, and a few clusters of serious commercial development. Most teenage antics involved taking drugs and more or less fucking around in the woods. I was sober then, dealing with a household rattled by addiction both of my father and my brother, and in passing through that I swore off substances, at least for a while.

The intensity of those childhood years, with absentee parents either flying off to pursue career instead of family, my father being a delinquent incoherent drunk, the never-ending conflict between him and my brother which would in doing suck up so much of my mother’s attention that I was left alone, and the physical and emotional abuse I suffered in that space, left me angry, terribly, terribly angry, and wanting to hurt something like I had been hurt. I was decent enough then not to victimize others; instead it was the standard refuge of angry young white boys, with “edgy” jokes I’d hate to leave my mouth now and a lot of fistfights with friends to blow off steam. Art-wise, I’d tried out punk and hardcore, and I found that I liked a great deal of it, but it never seemed to fully reach that sense of rot and malice I knew had been put inside of me (and that, thankfully, years later, proper therapy would drain out).

I’d been bitten by the death metal bug already. Opeth was that first taste, or at least first real taste, and from there it accelerated. Like many who were young teenagers in the 2000s, I had my nu-metal phase, but the parallel worlds of progressive music and extreme music drew me out. No description of metal fandom in that era, especially young metal fandom, can be complete without at least briefly mentioning the seismic shift when Mastodon arrived on the scene. “March of the Fire Ants” still functions as a brutal, technical death metal pummeler, one of a level of heaviness they’d never again even shoot for. The progressive/psychedelic thrash of Leviathan, which was released as my father was dying for the first time in a hospital, bleeding from a wound in his gut gained after an attempt to drain the abdominal fluid from his cirrhosis was botched, was a pitch black bullet to my brain. Ahab’s mad death-struggle against the perfect evil of God-via-white whale was replicated in my fledgling atheism in the face of seemingly insurmountable and deeply chaotic punishment me and my family had passed through.

My father, miraculously, would live, but that throttling to darker and more feral music had begun in earnest. I followed from Mastodon to sludge metal more broadly, and from sludge it was not a great leap to finally fully return to Cannibal Corpse and Morbid Angel and the like. It felt like donning an old coat; the scouring, the bestiality, the willingness to consensual cruelty and hyperbolic violence fit some vile thing that lurched and writhed and crawled within me, something I hated but had to get out and knew no other escape. I hated pop-punk when I was younger; it never touched that place in me that it seemed to in others, something I’ve learned as an adult to be more of an epigenetic fluke in development of taste that any broader or more objectively grounded fact of the quality of the work. I needed something hateful. I needed something evil. I needed something that would beat the shit out of me the way the shit was beaten out of me at home, long-sleeve black t-shirts worn to school to cover blacker bruises and then, eventually, short-sleeve black t-shirts to flaunt them. I needed death metal.

And then Relapse Records, a label I had become familiar with due to their work with Mastodon and High on Fire, reissued all three of Atheist’s records.

Atheist is a death metal band out of Florida, the most benevolent home of the genre in the United States. They were formed in 1984 and, like a lot of bands of the genre formed that early, drew from a lot of wells beyond death metal as we know it. This is partly because of a historical factoid that gets omitted sometimes, especially in contemporary discussion of these genres; within the 1980s, as metal as we know it (as opposed to, say, the heavier, headier hard rock of groups like Led Zeppelin and Deep Purple) was on the rise, there was only mild separation by crowd. While we can look back and pluck out the bands, both underground and popular, that we find particular affinity to, issues like general lack of radio play aside from very specific time slots and almost no representation on channels like MTV meant that those who wanted metal were more or less exposed to a very wide swath of it all of the time. There was no viable way to indulge in the rising South American bands that were bending thrash toward death and black metal ends without also hearing about Quiet Riot, no way to follow the demo tapes of Tom G. Warrior in his youth without hearing Hanoi Rocks. And while fans certainly had feelings about which bands were good or bad, there was a broader mixing pot of stylistic reference than is sometimes reflected in journalism.

Atheist is a key example of that. Given their relatively early founding in 1984 (before we consider death metal proper to have broken) they draw more from thrash metal than you might expect, especially given that their recording debut came out in 1990. By that time, death metal as we know it was well underway; Atheist’s sound, then, might come across as an anachronism to modern listeners, trying to square release date to what they hear on the record. This is parallax, however; the band passed through multiple names and released several demos between their formation and the recording of their debut record, Piece of Time, in 1988, and the tapes had decent circulation among the scene. That plus their location within Florida meant that, while by no means economic juggernauts, they were at least well-connected and known within the scene.

Like almost every metal band of the 1980s, Atheist also did not go untouched by progressive metal. Progressive rock mostly filtered into heavy metal through those 1970s hard rock and heavy metal bands that laid foundational roots for the metal of the 1980s. Groups like Rainbow, Judas Priest, Black Sabbath and Iron Maiden are the closest to the metal canon that 1980s groups would draw from, and all of them were largely influenced by the progressive rock movement of the late 1960s and early 1970s. Likewise, experimental movements in underground music were thrusting other outsider groups like the nervier end of new wave, Frank Zappa’s more abstract moments and even more popular groups like Marillion into the limelight again, offering a renewed contact for young bands to aesthetically have at their disposal. Atheist certainly took note of this, even if only via groups like Fates Warning, Queensryche and Watchtower; even on their earliest demos, you can hear riffs that zig and zag in lightning motion, a lightning fast trebly and rounded bass tone whipping alongside the guitars, and drumming that feels like Gar Samuelson was fed speed instead of heroin that day.

In fact, the biggest comparison point not only of their early demos but also of their first full length Piece of Time is perhaps Megadeth fed through a death metal grinder. Mustaine’s legendary sense of punk-scoured progressive thrash metal, full of knotted arrangements and tricky guitar patterns, repeats in the early work of Atheist, abetted by bass playing that could technically keep up with the wild proggy arcs of thrash guitar. In fact there are only two explicitly death metal things about those early recordings. First is the production, which in giving a roughness to the proceedings offered in part the concept of making that roughness deliberate in both tone and playing. Second is the vocals, which were too feral and unhinged for thrash but still keeping more in line with Chuck Schuldiner’s higher-range screaming, which itself rode the genealogical boundary between thrash and its child genre death metal.

While all members of Atheist were excited to dive deeper and deeper into this arms race of technicality, one who swept up thrash by the late 80s and pushed nearly every band into dropping 8-minute multi-part odd-time suites (including Anthrax, the notoriously more happy-go-lucky group of the thrash movement),was bassist Roger Patterson. He was in many ways like the Cliff Burton or Alex Webster of the group, a bass player who not only looked up to Jaco Pastorius, lord among bassists even then, but also sought to achieve the same kind of notability as the guitar players at his side. Guitar players who want to improve their playing had decades of virtuosos of varying kinds even in the mid- to late-1980s, and metal in specific went through a boom in the immediate post-Van Halen years. This is, in many ways, one of the largest ways that often go unmentioned in movements like glam metal became a major influence to even underground metal, with that space offering a platform for dozens of virtuoso guitar players who in turn could get guitar instruction material into the hands of young players.

Meanwhile, bassists have always been on the shorter end of the stick, especially in the rock and metal worlds, and even more so in the time period. There are notable greats, certainly, but it’s also notable itself that almost every great metal bassist of the 1980s has a keen interest in progressive rock. It was largely those bassists that provided a model for virtuosic development in the bass while still serving the function of bass within a rock context, and in turn listening to those bassists indirectly pushed a lot of bassists like Steve Harris, Cliff Burton and Roger Patterson to push their fellow bandmates into more progressive waters in regards to arrangement and general riff writing. Add to that jazz and fusion, the perennial domain of young serious players of guitar and bass, and we begin to see the assemblage of the key components that Atheist sought to append to their playing.

Piece of Time certainly sounded like a death/thrash record made by players who had heard a Return to Forever record in their time. The pieces are competent, and it is easy to see why that record caused interest in them to briefly swell. Most notably, the guitars, bass and drums seem not to bob along in straight time like the cliche of metal bands, nor did they indulge in bluesy syncopation like some groups; instead, they had a microrhythmic thrust, a slight swing that seemed to recall samba, bossa nova, or perhaps jazz. This was tight and rich in the string instruments but perhaps most wild and loose-limbed in Steve Flynn’s drumming. He punched, stretched and pulled the beat; but not much, not yet. That would come later. Piece of Time is a good record, but it is also clearly a compilation of the best songs of their demo period, tunes that worked well live, and a few to fill out the remaining space, which is to say that it does not have the greatest structural integrity in the world. Still, debut records for many are an extension of demo years, acting as a sampler of things to come. For Atheist, this was certainly true. It was their second album that would display them at full strength.

I was walking through a Best Buy about 15 minutes from my house in an area of Spotsylvania called Central Park, which touts itself to be the largest outdoor mall in America. It turns out “largest outdoor mall” is a remarkably difficult metric to actually pin down, what with vacancies, revenue, and even just the amorphous boundaries of shopping malls and mere attendant strips. This Best Buy was, by my high school years, one of the only places in Spotsylvania that still sold records. There had been a long-lived independent record store called The Blue Dog downtown, fed largely by the nearby Mary-Washington College student body. It was the place where, about a decade earlier, my brother and I went in with our pooled allowance and purchased Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness on release day. It had been put out of business, like so many things, by the combination of the downturn in the economy and the rise of downloading, two things which made college students, its primary purchasing body, more likely to stay in dorms torrenting new records rather than driving out to pick them up on release day.

I certainly downloaded more than my fair share of music but also bought as much as I could with whatever money I had. And I loved browsing records specifically because of how it could put me in front of music I might not otherwise have ever known existed. But the lack of proper record stores left someone like me with very few options. The Borders in town was run by a middle aged white dude who kept it stocked with progressive rock both contemporary and classic, as well as plenty of jazz records, so that became my haunt when hunting for such albums, complicated by the tempting presence of shelves and shelves of books. Best Buy, with its rows and rows of shelves in the music section (which in 2005 took up the entire back of the store, and even included separate sections for both concert DVDs and special boxed sets) and its distribution arrangements with several labels, became my go-to for heavy metal. It was browsing in that same Best Buy that I found my first High on Fire record, discovered Baroness during the release of Red Album, and picked up my From the Vault two-fer King Diamond set of both Them and Conspiracy. There was an FYE and a Sam Goody in the mall that had their own metal sections, and while both carried fairly obscure death and black metal records, they also charged nearly 40 dollars for some of them, which mathed out to 3 Best Buy metal records.

Trips with me to bookstores were a massive pain to my family. I would, after misunderstanding an encouragement from my mom about thoroughness, start at the top far left of the very first bookshelf in the store and work my way through book by book, slowly easingfrom the shelves all that seemed interesting to me one by one. Eventually, I curated my total stack, from which I would carve out the bottom tier of books until I arrived at a selection that would fit my budget. This process would sometimes take up to four hours, and being a young boy with at-the-time undiagnosed autism, I was sometimes, to be polite, exceptionally stubborn and upset with the notion of speeding up, truncating or altering this process in any way. I guaranteed every single time I left the bookstore that I had exactly what I wanted most, and had gotten the greatest quantity of items I possibly could, leaving me with absolutely no regrets. I simply was unaware of the emotional toll this would sometimes take on my father (who eventually stopped accompanying me on such trips) and my brother (who eventually demanded to be driven back home by my mother mid-trip when he finished, a process that literally not once took more time than my extremely thorough vetting process). My mother, to her credit, found it charming, and we often spent (and still spend) a lot of time bonding among bookshelves.

By my teen years, this process had begun to include music stores. I would find the first shelf of the Pop/Rock section, always the largest, and start with the very first record in the very first row, flipping through item by item, row by row, shelf by shelf, until I had indexed the entire section. After that, I would go to Jazz, then New Age, then R&B/Hip-Hop, on and on and on. it is a shock to me, in retrospect, that people would willingly accompany me and stay and talk with me the entire time. My girlfriend at the time eventually stopped coming with me on such trips if she couldn’t guarantee a place to sit or a cafe to grab a coffee and read a bit. She let me call her on the phone to Google different groups or records I found to check their review scores on various sites that I trust. I was… an immense pain in the ass. But it helped me get through a lot of records in those formative years, and over time I became exceptionally sensitive to new stock entering the new store, and even began my now-lifelong habit of marking new album release dates and scanning new releases for gems I might otherwise never have heard of.

It was by this extreme and deliberate method that allowed me, one day, to walk into the Best Buy on new release day. Stock for most record stores in 2005 would arrive on Mondays to be inventoried and then arrayed on the shelves sometime between Monday evening and Tuesday morning. This new stock included not only new records released that year, but new reissues. Relapse was riding a wave at the time of reissues. Unbeknownst to me, the combination of downloading and Mastodon’s rise was also generating a massive interest in the back catalogue of metal that had, for all of the 90s and most of the 2000s, gone without reissue, relying on the diminishing circulation of stock from the late 80s and early 90s.

One of these groups was Atheist. A group which, by the gods of language and order, started with the letter A, and as such was very near the beginning of my two-hour item-by-item index of new stock ( a process cut in half by the sheer number of times I frequented that store, knowing at a glance which shelves hadn’t been touched since my last visit.)

There had been an aborted attempt to remaster and re-release the Atheist catalogue in 2002. I thank my lucky stars that, after the reissuing of Piece of Time, this process was aborted by the band, who was reportedly unhappy with a number of issues with the re-releases, from payout to sonic quality. Had the records been released then and not on that auspicious day in 2005 which left multiple copies of all three Atheist records sitting in an overstuffed row on that shelf, I may never have discovered the end of technical and progressive death metal I came to love most.

There was a sticker pressed against the shrink wrap of each album. One touted THE LEGENDARY DEBUT, another exclaimed THE FINAL ALBUM OF THE ORIGINAL LINEUP and the last simply said THE CLOSE TO PROGRESSIVE/DEATH METAL’S FINEST or something like that. A quick Google search on one of the terminals they had in the Best Buy showed it was their entire discography, which summed up to a grand total of about $35. I picked up all three. I probably bumped it up to 50, my standard haul amount if it was a sub-100+ kind of day, with a Broken Social Scene record or something like that. It was 2005 after all.

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I only have one sibling, a brother three years older than me, and for the vast body of my childhood he was my primary abuser. Familial abuse is one of the most underreported kinds of abuse, especially when it occurs to children. I’m not an expert, merely a survivor; but I can say with certainty that the methods of silence and control a family can exert on a child, sheerly through the terror of not losing custody, can be powerful and overwhelming, especially when you are the youngest. At first, it was coded cries for help; eventually, this collapsed into open displays, where I embraced the body-devouring nihilism of knowing that no one was going to help me. I wanted to wear my wounds and flaunt them to people, to make them feel awful. This was not a mature or fair or decent response, but I was a teenager grappling with abuse in a home wracked with addiction and a father who seemed some days to be on the very precipice of death, and I didn’t know how to cope. It was not by miracles of god or the great providential purview of heaven that these wrongs were one day redressed in full and my family and I came to reconciliation, but by love and tremendous effort on both of our parts. But in 2005, that effort had not yet begun, and I was raw and skinless.

When my brother moved out, heading to Texas with his wife with whom he’d eloped at the age of 19 to finally push himself to get a degree and get on with his life instead of sitting at home doing drugs, drinking and abusing me without my parents so much as lifting a finger to stop him, his room was left empty. It was in my sickness that I sought to colonize that space, to transform it from a cavern of terror and blood to one of my sole pleasure. I wielded the depth of my wounds to my parents, who acquiesced in their witness and allowed me to dress the room with an old loveseat, my computer desk and personal computer, my PS2 with TV, and several bookshelves for my growing number of books and CDs and games. The room was always hot, terribly hot, due to an issue with the venting prohibiting it from getting any kind of air conditioning and the construction of the house causing it to catch excess heat. With the door closed and window drawn, which was always, in those dark-painted walls I ensconced myself in the cavern of my teenage solitude and grief, beginning what would be a decade-long process of disassembling myself fully before remaking myself into a better man. Abuse, both emotional and physical, especially when you have a neurodivergence like autism and a mental illness like bipolar, can put some very sour thoughts in your head, and often with little in the way of adequate force to check and correct them. I was a crooked boy who would, for a time, grow into a crooked man; but now was the hour of my great disassembly.

I would get home from school, say hello to my dad, and then promptly make my way to my cave. My father had given me a decent sound system for the computer as a gift. He was perhaps my most obviously problematic parent, but it was also through the bareness of his wounds that I was able to build a more equitable companionship with him. It was in that overly hot room that, sick with the flu and laying back on the loveseat, I listened to the album stream of Blood Mountain by Mastodon for the first time and was dragged into psychedelic nightmares in my fever. And so too it was where I ripped the Atheist records to my external hard drive full of records in lossless format, set it to playback in my overly-adjusted EQed player, turned up my sound system, and listened.

Piece of Time passed by relatively uneventfully. It was to me then and still is to me now a good record, but no more. There are quality songs on it, and excellent performances, and the importance of debuts and demos to understanding the shape of a group and the arc of their history can’t really be overstated. But as a record, it felt somewhat underwhelming.

And that’s when I heard Unquestionable Presence and fell in love.

On Unquestionable Presence, not only did the sonic template shift more firmly toward death metal, but jazz fusion and Latin music began to really be prominent in the compositions. Opener “Mother Man”, metallic guitar tones aside, opens like a Latin dance tune, all percussion parts flattened to a singular drummer’s hands and feet, forming a tight dance with the rich and full bass, which received better production and presence than most death metal records prior. By the mid-point of the verse, the death metal chug and atmospherics take hold, the sole remnant being Flynn’s drumming, which is a bit too manic and ahead of the beat to be properly funky. It marries both the microrhythmic impulses of extreme metal and punk which tends to favor behind ahead of the beat and jazz and Latin music which often favor behind a touch behind it. You can hear in that first song, as it moves through its 1001 individual sections and riffs, the seeds of so many death metal bands both technical/progressive and not, being laid to soil. And then, at 3:25, a break: a full-on Latin groove between bassist Tony Choy and drummer Flynn, disrupted only by a brief major key NWOBHM-inspired chugging riff, before collapsing back into that groove.

“Mother Man” would go on to feature in almost every live show Atheist played from the release of this record on, and it’s not hard to see why. Their debut Piece of Time was a fine record, but clearly a compilation of ideas learned along the way, presented more as a glorified demo reel to prospective listeners. Unquestionable Presence, then, was their first real album in a sense, and its opener so too would function as the mission statement of the band. Choosing a song like “Mother Man”, which never settles the question of whether they are a death metal, progressive rock, or jazz band but certainly finally strikes out the notion that they are a thrash band, feels proper. The song slides effortlessly back and forth, dialing up and down the amounts of progressive metal, jazz, and death metal in a manner that feels both deeply organic and enthralling. This was released in 1990, before tech death would acquire the bad name it sometimes has, with overly processed triggered drums and songs that pass like riff salad without a clear apprehension of how they will emotionally impact the listener. Atheist began their life as quality songwriters, which is still apparent here; they just learned a few new tricks along the way to spruce up the general forms they already knew were compelling.

Imagine my shock then when, as this masterclass of death metal passed, it was followed by what would become perhaps my favorite death metal tune of all time, the title track “Unquestionable Presence”. The vocal performance snaps and snarls. Kelly Shaefer sounds more like a rabid animal, ranting and growling and shrieking, than a proper vocalist, like if James Hetfield was trapped in the wilderness alone for 30 days without food or water. The song absolutely rips through its progressions, arcing quick from furious finger-twisting unisons that still lean enough on traditional death metal melodic structures to sound evil and menacing rather than merely physically difficult, sections with long held guitar chords singing like discordant crystals in some malicious earthen well hidden deep within the earth, and then… that chorus.

The chorus of “Unquestionable Presence” is instrumental, relying on a jaw-dropping riff that feels punky, primal, and destructive. Most engaging to me, as a young metal drummer trapped in a city of pop-punk players, was the absolutely insane rhythm underpinning it, a stomach-churning 7+7+10+10/8 repeating rhythm that flipped the subdivisions of those beats measure to measure and repetition to repetition. I was about as big of a nerd about these things then as I was now, and so I busted out some graph paper (ever a rhythmic notationist’s best friend) and began charting the rhythm out. It was effectively a manual piano roll, an easy-to-read drum annotation method I’d picked up for breaking down especially tricky passages that neither came to mind/hand easily nor were especially legible when written in proper sheet music form. But being compelled to write out a tricky part to learn its inner workings and slight rhythmic pushes and pulls isn’t interesting to a layperson, and I know that; what was and still is compelling about this rhythm is, like any well-performed odd-timepiece, it sounded good. And not just good: manic, primal, on the verge of falling apart but never quite collapsings. Those shifting subdivisions weren’t just a feat of technical wizardry; they were meant and successfully managed to keep me off balance for the duration of its play, barrelling with a loose and punky sense of rattling downhill inertia while still being an absolute feat to actually pull off. It felt to me, a young metalhead and musician, like the perfect musical passage, one that married listenability with unnerving atmospheric emotional touches, technicality with a punky looseness, inhuman ability with deeply human lived-in playing. It was and still is for me the passage I point to when I talk about technical and progressive death metal, and even progressive metal and death metal on their own. It is, in all manners, perfect.

The rest of the album follows in kind. I don’t wish to summarize it like this in an attempt to diminish the power of the remaining tracks, but space and time are limited and so a thorough discussion of each song doesn’t feel especially necessary. Those two opening tracks, “Mother Man” and “Unquestionable Presence”, prime the listener for what follows as both a showcase of technical ability and progressive arrangements, each song featuring a mind-boggling number of riffs and progressions, which also being a feral and immediate death metal record. That, I think, is perhaps the greatest gift Atheist had as players. They didn’t use progressive arrangements or technical passages to dazzle the listener; they were used to produce a mood, an affect, one they pursued rigorously through their various songs, sometimes leaning more toward death metal such as on “Your Life’s Retribution” and sometimes more on exalting progressive metal such as on “An Incarnation’s Dream”. Unquestionable Presence is as varied as their debut, some songs feeling feral and others psychedelic, some like jazz and some like death metal. They never really fully blend and marry the sounds together across the record, instead sliding back and forth across them uneasily, like a skittering insect across a surface of water. But it is this lack of resolved musical direction that lends the material as a set such a supernatural level of power. There is a reason that this album has featured so heavily in setlists since their reunion. This is the eruptive moment of the group, the record where their identity as a group was set. It is a mirror to My Arms, Your Hearse in that manner, another record where a group seemed to finally close in on the sound that would dominate their productive output for years to come.

Atheist would go on to follow Unquestionable Presence with Elements. It was recorded after a brief break, declining commercial interest in the band as well as internal conflicts causing the members to briefly move on to other pastures before the record label came calling for the final album on their contract. Despite these harried beginnings (and poor promotion for the record at the time of its release), Elements stands next to its sibling as another masterclass record. In almost every way, it is the better of Unquestionable Presence; the playing tighter, the jazz jazzier, the prog both spacier and more psychedelic. And yet, despite being a wondrous and beloved record, it is not the one that sits highest in my heart, nor so in the hearts of most of the fanbase. The reasons for this are not easily explicated. The best I can arrive at is, again, that sense of eruption. The two records are conjoined in my heart, and when I listen to one I almost always listen to the other shortly after.

But it was the cover of Unquestionable Presence that swam up into my heart when I thought of the psychedelic fringes of death metal, where my own interior madness with my bipolar disorder, PTSD, and autism collide. It was Unquestionable Presence that I thought of first when drafting concepts for this column. It was Unquestionable Presence that I played in calculus class in high school when I passed my headphones to the popular girl and lifelong friend who sat behind me, saying, “Check this shit out.” There are intangible hooks that buried this record above the others into my heart, so deep that I can clearly recall the moments I have spent with it over a decade on.

Find an image of the cover, as big as you can get, a wall-filling poster if you can. Dim the lights. Put on headphones, decent ones, with good padding and decent bass presence and mid frequencies. Play the record. And stare at that image, and surrender yourself to the cavern of psychic unbecoming that is death metal, the psychedelic disintegrating journey through your madness and pain to some feral interior spark. And know in that place what fans of death metal know, and when I knew even in that dark well that was once my abuser’s bedroom: there is a joy in this animal rage and psychic violence, something beyond mere happiness or sadness, some indefatigable spirit that thrashes and writhes and snarls with a bright euphoric eye and a rapturous laugh of ecstasy.

-Langdon Hickman

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