A writer should always set challenges: it keeps things interesting and guards against formulaic and predictable assessments. Still, as Harry Callahan sagely observed, “A man’s gotta know his limitations.” I can’t say I would have felt the compulsion to attempt an appraisal of Fantomas, Mike Patton’s side project supergroup. How do you get a handle on vocals without lyrics? How do you describe what is essentially a sonic Molotov cocktail of Melvins, Mr. Bungle and Slayer? Perhaps by suggesting that Fantomas are a Molotov cocktail of Melvins, Mr. Bungle and Slayer.
So when PopMatters decided to continue commemorating its ten year anniversary with a feature dedicated to the most essential albums released in 1999 (they already looked at the seminal movies from that year, and I took that opportunity to write about The Insider), it was like fate (with a lowercase F) was daring me to do work. No serious discussion of 1999 could fail to incorporate the debut from Fantomas (as well as Mr. Bungle’s California–more on that later in the week…), so I gave it the old post-graduate try.
Link here; (the site also has sound samples from the album) text below:
27 April 1999
Mike Patton has straddled so many genres and appeared with so many different artists (John Zorn, Dan the Automator, and Kaada, just to name three), it’s almost impossible to think back to that time, a little over a decade ago, when Faith No More fans agonized over whether that band would reunite (they would not). At the same time, the smaller, but equally—if not more—fanatical contingent of Mr. Bungle fans wondered if, and how, that band could possibly follow up their uncategorizable shot heard round the underground, Disco Volante. Their prayers would be answered with California, which then sent fans into another prolonged wait-and-see as to whether Mr. Bungle would record again (they would not).
Patton has made so much music that it really is incredible—and more than a little amusing—to remember that he was a straightforward rock deity, relatively speaking, circa 1998. That is to say, he was famous (relatively speaking) for fronting Faith No More, even though that band got (and still gets) more attention for its decidedly mediocre breakthrough The Real Thing (1989) than Angel Dust (1993), which is easily one of the best and most influential albums of that decade. No matter what Patton proclaimed, most folks assumed that Mr. Bungle was a lark, a side project to scratch the creative itches his more mainstream material could not approach.
And so, regardless of what anyone expected, or hoped for, it was less than likely that anyone could have anticipated what the eccentric frontman was cooking up in his laboratory. As soon became evident, Patton was headed in a very different direction indeed, inspiring him to recruit a supergroup of sorts to help him realize his vision. Calling on Trevor Dunn (good friend and bassist from Mr. Bungle), Buzz Osborne (guitarist and mastermind of the Melvins), and Dave Lombardi (the widely worshipped drummer from Slayer), Patton assembled what appeared, on paper, to be a metal lover’s wet dream. Amazingly, the collective turned out to surpass even the wildest hype, gelling to constitute a unified whole greater than the sum of its impressive parts. Of course, musicians of this magnitude can’t help but be brilliant, but the lion’s share of the credit must go to Patton, as this was his baby for every step of the way. The band played and perfected the material Patton provided, and the resulting album hit the streets in April 1999, becoming the inaugural release for Ipecac, Patton’s new label.
Fantômas, named after the very popular, if controversial, early 20th century French crime novel character, is effectively the band that ensured Patton was finished with Faith No More (soon, he would also be finished with Mr. Bungle). It’s challenging to describe what their eponymous debut sounds like, in part because it incorporates so many different styles of music. It is decidedly avant-garde work, with the hardcore flourishes one would expect from Osborne and Lombardo. It is also refreshingly out there, which one would expect from Patton. But this does not begin to address how truly original the album is, or the ways it achieves oddness of a whole other magnitude.
Patton does not sing so much as employ his seemingly limitless vocal range as a fourth instrument—there is not a single intelligible word uttered through the duration of the recording. Indeed, the work itself does not feature songs, but “pages”, the idea being a musical interpretation (or recreation) of a comic book: 30 sonic snippets that accompany the “plot” illustrated in the CD booklet. Frankly, the pictures (though very effective) are not necessary, as the emphasis here is on sounds and feelings, not linear narrative. This is not to imply that the proceedings are unintelligible; rather, the music unfolds with its own internal logic. Impenetrable and abrasive at first listen (Patton sounds like a trapped animal, a human chainsaw, and a motorboat engine out of water, sometimes all in a span of ten seconds), this is challenging material that obliges the audience to surrender expectations and meet Patton on his own terms.
A great deal of time and effort could be dedicated to debating what it all means, or how he did it (as ostensibly free-wheeling as the material may seem, Patton actually choreographed every second of it before the band ever got involved), and where this recording properly fits in an assessment of Patton’s evolution. In hindsight, Fantômas is very obviously a direction—wayward or ingenious, depending upon the listener—Patton wanted to head in, and he’s never backtracked, for better or for worse. To this listener, it represents the first day of the rest of Patton’s artistic life. Fantômas let him break with what he must have felt were the straightjacket-like conventions and expectations of the traditional rock route, and it’s almost like he had to invent his own language to give free expression to what was boiling around inside his mind.
Fantômas is not an album most people would put into the regular rotation. It’s intense, it’s involving, and it requires a full sitting to absorb—although having heard it so many times, I actually can queue up individual “pages” and enjoy them on their own terms: Pages 1, 2, 3, 4, 10, 11, 12, 15, 17, 19, 21, 26 and 29 are endlessly interesting and satisfying, especially if they randomly pop up in the iPod shuffle—and it’s most likely not the music you want on when company is present. Ten years has not remotely diminished its quirky, edgy ambition, and it remains a very unique document, even in Patton’s ever-growing catalog.
It’s difficult to determine how influential this work was, because nobody else in the world could ever have conceived this, much less pulled it off. It was an inspiration for the assembled players, as they would collaborate many times in the ensuing years, with predictably engaging results. Whether or not Fantômas is the best work Patton has done is totally irrelevant, but it is perhaps the most important work he has ever done. For himself.