Happy 20th Anniversary to Faithless’ debut album Reverence, originally released in the UK April 8, 1996.
Mention the band Faithless to any moderately knowledgeable music head and he or she will, more than likely, instinctively respond with an anecdote or memory of “Insomnia.” Indeed, the trailblazing group’s massive 1995 dancefloor-conquering anthem was universally embraced upon its release and still resonates profoundly for many two decades later, a surefire testament to the song’s enduring appeal.
However, I would argue that the ubiquity and timelessness of “Insomnia” has effectively overshadowed the brilliance of Faithless’ debut album Reverence, which arrived roughly four months later. At least here in the States, I’ve met only a select few people who recall other Faithless tracks, let alone any of their six excellent studio albums—all of which I fervently recommend to anyone who will listen.
Granted, I recognize that the awareness and appreciation of the group’s music and influence are far more pronounced in their UK homeland and across the expanse of Europe. Nevertheless, Faithless’ relative obscurity stateside reminds me, yet again, of the persistent dichotomy that exists between musical tastes and trends here versus those overseas. The fact that Faithless never broke big in the US still seems criminally insane to me, considering how consistently magnificent their discography—above and beyond any one single—truly is.
Faithless first took shape in early 1995, when Ben Langmaid (formerly of the bands Kubb and La Roux) introduced DJ, composer and multi-instrumentalist Ayalah “Sister Bliss” Bentovim to his friend and producer Rowland “Rollo” Armstrong and emcee-songwriter Maxwell “Maxi Jazz” Fraser. Along with the fourth founding member Jamie Catto, the singer-songwriter who left the band in 1999 to create 1 Giant Leap, the newly formed Faithless wasted precious little time in orchestrating their first pair of sweeping, club-friendly compositions.
Featuring the hushed vocals of Rollo’s younger sister Dido and Maxi Jazz’s distinctive poetics, the soaring “Salva Mea” was released in July 1995 as the group’s first single. Though “Salva Mea” would experience chart success upon its re-release in 1996, its initial reception was tepid at best. While “Insomnia” is phenomenal, it was primarily the epic grandeur and sinister soundscape of “Salva Mea” that blew me away and made me fall madly in love with Faithless’ transcendent sound. Among the group’s myriad standout songs, it’s still my most beloved.
Four months after “Salva Mea” emerged, Faithless unveiled their famous follow-up single “Insomnia,” a frenetic yet melodic ode to late night restlessness and sleep-deprived reveries. The hallmarks of club culture, one might say. According to Maxi Jazz, “Insomnia” actually came to fruition on a whim, as a last-minute addition during the group’s 1995 recording sessions for Reverence. As he explained during a 2013 Guestlist interview:
We'd finished the album and we were in the studio compiling it, deciding which track was going first and second etcetera. And I had this idle thought that we were not compiling for a CD, we were compiling for an album which consisted of an A and a B side and we should have had a dance track on both sides, but only had one at the time. This was quite late Sunday night and we thought, ‘right ,let’s come to the studio tomorrow morning to make another dance track.’ They rang me Monday night and told me they had done another one and they were going to call it “Insomnia” because they were having trouble getting kip. So I got some words down that night after I put the phone down for about 15 minutes and went to the studio the next night. I was in the studio 45 minutes and I went home, that was that. It was a complete afterthought. I stuck it on the album and put it out as a single.
Like its precursor, “Insomnia” failed to make sizable ripples across the charts, at least initially. But due in large part to the group’s enhanced visibility while on tour throughout 1996, coupled with the group’s unwavering conviction and patience, “Insomnia” steadily began penetrating airwaves and pounding dancefloors across the continent, gradually ascending to the upper ranks of multiple charts.
The 10-track Reverence was released in April 1996 through Cheeky Records, the label founded by Rollo in 1991. Upon listening to the album for the first time that spring, I recall being pleasantly surprised that it didn’t simply include eight more “Salva Mea” and “Insomnia” clones. Much to the contrary, the multi-textured Reverence expands way beyond its two most recognizable tunes and includes more varied arrangements, reflective of the group’s often overlooked musicality and versatility.
Replete with hypnotic dub-bass rhythms, the album opener and title track is a chilled-out showcase for the Buddhist Maxi Jazz’s unique rhyme cadence and spiritual bent as the self-proclaimed G.O.D. (Grand Oral Disseminator). The plaintive “Don’t Leave” is a stripped-down, acoustic guitar driven ballad that pairs Catto’s yearning pleas to a disillusioned lover with Pauline Taylor’s soulful vocals. A modern-day nod to Luther Ingram’s 1972 hit of the same name, the percussive, slinky groove of “If Lovin’ You is Wrong” finds Maxi Jazz unabashedly celebrating the most carnal of desires. The endearingly sanguine, Dido-led “Flowerstand Man” examines the power of an all-consuming infatuation atop buoyant, shimmering sonics. Featuring Penny Shaw’s operatic, goosebump-inducing rendition of the aria “L'altra notte in fondo al mare,” the dazzling album closer “Drifting Away” is arguably the most underappreciated gem of the whole affair.
Beginning with Reverence and throughout their prolific career that followed, Faithless expertly crafted dance music with a heart, soul, and conscience, primarily thanks to the binary dynamism of Maxi Jazz’s cerebral soliloquies and Sister Bliss' masterful musicianship. Last year, four years after the group announced their split in 2011, they reconvened to celebrate their 20-year anniversary with a handful of live performances in London and the October release of Faithless 2.0, an expansive remix and hits collection. Though Maxi Jazz, Sister Bliss, and Rollo have neither endorsed nor denied the possibility of recording new music together again in the future, my fingers are tightly crossed in the hopes of a more formal reunion down the road.
“Faithless was not purely escapist or mindless hedonism,” Sister Bliss declared during a 2013 interview with author Jules Evans. “It was about being fallible and human, and that’s why it’s touched people’s lives.” Without question, Faithless have most definitely touched mine.