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The best work is remembered, even if its creators suffer for their boldness. Herman Melville died penniless, his work out of print; his fiction was rescued early in the 20th century. Edgar Allan Poe's work was blemished by a rogue biographer and later revived. Metal follows a similar path. Atheist's prog running mates Cynic and Pestilence were pilloried; years later, all three are revered as the fathers of technical death metal. There are bands facing critical barbs today that will be remembered differently in 2031.

The timing of Unquestionable Presence couldn't have been worse. Visceral death metal ruled, defined by sanguinary lyrics, horrific album covers, and Satanic hymns. Cannibal Corpse's Butchered at Birth and Morbid Angel's Blessed Are the Sick also dropped in 1991 and were embraced. The scene orthodoxy made sense. Hair metal polluted the well, grunge was ascendant, and metal became a punchline. Uncompromising force was the litmus test. Atheist upended expectations with an album that fused jazz and metal, was unabashedly experimental, and sported a cover that looked like a New Age guidebook.

Although praised by peers, Atheist never won widespread acceptance. Instead, the band faced crowds that pelted them with trash, or didn’t show up. The reception fueled Atheist's demise. Steve Flynn, one of the most inventive drummers working, put his kit in the basement and went to business school. Kelly Shaefer toured Ozzfest with Neurotica, dabbled in nu-metal, and adopted a wardrobe that makes him look like death metal's Bret Michaels.

But Unquestionable Presence is as fresh and vital as it was 20 years ago. Like all great albums, it defies trends and exists in its own space. Listen to the see-sawing progression that opens "Mother Man", and marvel at the jazzy breakdowns in the song's final minute. A near-Middle-Eastern touch flavors "Enthralled in Essence". Gonzo solos abound; Rand Burkey's guitar work is fluid and effortless. Flynn's performance is a master class. Like Slayer's Dave Lombardo, he borrows from many genres, switches between subtlety and power, and crafts percussion often more memorable than the riffs.Shaefer's wounded shriek is still an anomaly in a scene dominated by cookie monsters.

Atheist could have taken a deserved victory lap when they released a new album in 2010. Instead, they wrote Jupiter, one of the best comeback albums in recent memory. It's further proof that putting aside trends and following one's own muse is the way to be remembered.

— Justin M. Norton

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HEAR UNQUESTIONABLE PRESENCE

"Mother Man"

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"Enthralled in Essence"

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