Fantômas: Fifteen Years Later

fantomas

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 Fantômas, 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 Fantômas 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 Fantômas, 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
Fantômas
Fantômas

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. Fifteen 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.

Sean Murphy


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Mr. Bungle’s California: Fifteen Years Later

bungle

*8/5/14:

This dropped a little over five years ago, which is difficult to fathom.

This album dropped a little over fifteen years ago, which is exceedingly difficult to fathom.

***

PopMatters keeps the party going, plowing through the calendar year of 1999, reminiscing about important albums that dropped that year. For my part, I’m tackling the yang to Fantomas’ yin: Mr. Bungle’s California. These two albums bookend Mike Patton’s frenetic, fin-de-siecle inspiration, and also signify two of the most significant and satisfying projects he has been involved with. Not quite as difficult to describe as Fantomas, California is nevertheless quite challenging to properly assess or summarize because, by nature of the band’s material, Mr. Bungle is uncategorizable. In a good way.

Link (with sound samples) here.

13 July 1999
Mr. Bungle
California

From the sounds of the seagulls and surf that open the album to the century-ending clang that closes it, Mr. Bungle’s California covers more ideas and images than most bands could cram into a career. Anyone who has fallen under Bungle’s uncanny spell can attest to the fact that when you hear one of their albums, it stays heard. This is music that takes you somewhere, including places you did not know existed. Mr. Bungle gets inside your mind and remains there.

Mr. Bungle only released three albums in the ‘90s (in part because the various members kept busy with other projects, like Faith No More, Fantômas, and Secret Chiefs 3, all of whom made incredible and important recordings during that decade), and each successive album represented a considerable leap forward. The band’s self-titled 1991 debut was an ambitious, genre-splicing experiment that combined carnivalesque whimsy with occasionally disturbing subject matter: it was about what happened after the circus left town, metaphorically speaking. Mr. Bungle endures as a psychedelic hall of mirrors that remains delightful and disorienting, no matter how many times you hear it. Their next release, 1995’s Disco Volante, upped the ante and managed somehow to be both weirder and (at times) more accessible than its predecessor. A song like “Desert Search for Techno Allah” (and before you even listen to it, think of the awesomely odd images that title conjures) defies description—it’s a techno mash-up with eye-popping musical proficiency. The band’s brand of weird science offers no quarter: this material affronts non-believers and turns adventurous listeners into fanatics.

Incredibly, after another four-year interval, California synthesized the band’s numerous compulsions (surf music, proto-funk, eastern rhythms, jazzy noodling, and ingenious yet oddball lyrics) into a cohesive whole. The confidence and focus displayed throughout their third album is on an entirely other level. On each of the ten tracks you might hear traces of Frank Zappa (both the comic and the composer), Captain Beefheart, Ennio Morricone, and the Ventures. The band cruises from one influence to the next with arresting ease, perfecting a sort of laid-back lunacy, a controlled hurricane of intensely opposite styles that inexplicably make complete sense.

Aside from being the Mr. Bungle masterpiece (Disco Volante boasts some of the band’s finest moments, but taken in its entirety it’s a tad too disjointed and self-indulgent; it’s a schizophrenic near-miss), California is the culmination of their cut-and-paste surrealism, marrying the stop-on-a-dime intensity with a kitchen sink sensibility that incorporates the entire universe into its vision. More so than any previous album, Mike Patton’s prodigious (and possibly unparalleled) vocal range is fully utilized, allowing him to explore everything from retro-crooning (“Vanity Fair”) to campy faux-lounge (“Pink Cigarette”) to relatively straightforward rock (“The Air-Conditioned Nightmare”) to the utterly unclassifiable (“Golem II: The Bionic Vapour Boy”). The band continuously weaves a west-coast vibe into the mix, winking and nodding with playful but heartfelt invocations of the Beach Boys, Hollywood, and (as always) surf music filtered through a distinctively postmodern heavy metal M.O.

California is not even a collection of songs so much as miniature sonic movies. Take “Ars Moriendi”, for instance. The opening seconds somehow blend a thrash guitar/drum riff with an accordion waltz (imagine hardcore gypsy music), then Patton enters with his operatic flourishes, singing lyrics like “All my bones are laughing / As you’re dancing on my grave”. The song navigates the incongruous edge between head-bang abandon and Turkish wedding music that makes you want to slamdance while doing a polka. Or consider “Goodbye Sober Day”, which is like “I Am the Walrus” on Peyote—think the outro of Syd Barrett’s “Bike” thrown into a blender with multi-tracked falsetto wails cut by one of Sun Ra’s stranger big band workouts. And that’s just the first 30 seconds. The song goes on to incorporate Gregorian chants (convincingly) and a Balinese monkey chant (seriously). All while the band slowly disintegrates into oblivion like the bad guys’ faces melting at the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark.

There are also gems of calm and clarity, like “The Holy Filament”, which showcases Patton as choir boy, and “Sweet Charity”, which sounds like Phil Spector working with Brian Wilson. Then there is the track that epitomizes what worked best on the previous albums, “None of Them Knew They Were Robots”. Here is the Bungle aesthetic at full effect: Hawaiian music crashing into Carl Stalling cartoon territory—keyboards and horns and Trey Spruance’s quicksilver chord changes—with a brief but convincing Elvis impersonation serving as a sick cherry on top. Oh, and it somehow manages to swing. It’s a madcap laugh, to be certain, but it’s also absolute genius.

And so, it’s a shame that the boys couldn’t keep the party going after Y2K, but considering the subsequent gifts we have received from Secret Chiefs 3, Tomahawk, and Fantômas, it seems churlish to complain. Besides, if Bungle was going to go out on top, the third time was a charm—the project where all the disparate elements and obsessions came together. California is an album that sums up the 20th century while burning the bridge to the 21st, an eternal fin-de-siècle celebration.

Sean Murphy

Air. Conditioned. Nightmare. Live.

Ars Moriendi. Live.

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Ten Albums That Supposedly Suck (But Do Not): #8 & #7 (Revisited)

8. Fantômas, Fantômas (1999)

This one is a bit of a stretch; it may even be cheating a little bit to include it since it’s not (necessarily) dismissed. On the other hand, it’s primarily recognized by Mike Patton aficionados. That’s fine, but it should have broader appeal for anyone looking for staggeringly original music and may be just what the doctor should have ordered for anyone bored with convention and cynicism. This is challenging music to listen to, and it’s definitely challenging to write about—but that only seems fair since it was quite obviously challenging to conceive and execute.

People who seem disinclined to check this out may be understandably intimidated by the notion of an album without lyrics, particularly when it features one of the eminent vocalists of his generation. More, when that singer is (ostensibly) utilizing an entire album without an intelligible sound other than shrieks, screams and imitations of violent acts, it’s…well, a tough sell. On the other hand, what part of a Melvins, Mr. Bungle and Slayer mash-up could you possibly be unexcited about? (Fantomas, for anyone not in the know, features former Bungle bassist Trevor Dunn, Melvins guitarist and mad genius Buzz Osborne and Slayer drum god Dave Lombardo.)

Once again, it’s challenging to relate what this uber-supergroup’s 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, unabashedly out there, which one would expect from Patton—who does not sing so much as employ his seemingly limitless vocal range as a fourth instrument. 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 material obliges its audience to surrender expectations and meet Patton on his own anomalous 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.

7. Living Colour, Stain (1993)

Even though Living Colour is still making excellent music today, they are mostly remembered as the band who did “Cult of Personality” two decades and change ago. Some people remember that their second album, Time’s Up was an improvement on the (outstanding) debut, and for a minute Living Colour was one of the biggest bands in the world. Then they made a third album and…that was that—at least for another ten long years. That third album was many degrees harder, darker and more difficult than their first two albums, which might explain why it did not go over. But how to reconcile the lack of love with the fact that in some regards Stain was their best album yet?

Losing the brilliant bassist Muzz Skillings, who bolted after the second album, could have been a crippling blow (he was that good) but when ancient school session wizard Doug Wimbish stepped into the mix the band did not miss a beat—literally. WImbish brought a funky, in your face dynamic and he and drummer Will Calhoun formed an unbreakable rhythm section: deep, elastic and loud. The star of the show, as always, is Vernon Reid, who is a human encyclopedia of sound. From the hat-tip to grunge stylings in “Go Away” to the typically ear-burning pyrotechnics of “Leave It Alone” to the Robert Fripp-esque atmospherics in “Nothingness”, Reid covers all the bases while refining his own idiosyncratic style.

So what’s not to love? Well, for one thing, this is definitely not a flawless record. A handful of songs, like “Ignorance is Bliss” and “This Little Pig” are rather paint-by-number—not to mention lyrically clichéd. Some of the songs, like “Postman” and “Never Satisfied” may have just been too severe for the delicate ears of alternative rock fans, circa ’93. Some of the songs may have been a bit too much, like the disorienting “Hemp” or the mirthfully provocative “Bi”. And none of the remaining songs were destined to be radio hits, and little on this album is as user-friendly as most of the material on the first two albums. Take it or leave it: no other band on the planet could ever make a song like “Wall”, which is capable of shaking you, making you smile and seeing the world with new ears.

All of which may explain why this one did not help Living Colour become the most popular and influential band of the ‘90s, which they would/could/should have been. Even for fans who got it, then, and endorse it now, Stain is a grueling, confrontational album, and one that leaves the listener more than a little exhausted. These are the types of albums that are considered uncompromising, courageous, even ahead of their time. They are also the types of albums that don’t sell a ton of copies or necessarily convert new fans. “WTFF”, indeed.

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Mr. Bungle

Romney is at it again. You’ve already heard and read about it, right? If not, a good summary of his latest implosion can be found HERE.

There is definitely a stench in the air this past week, and it is the scent of a desperate, disoriented campaign. And leading the charge is a craven opportunist who doesn’t know, or can’t articulate what he believes in because he only believes in one thing: himself. And therefore, it all makes sense, through that prism, to see all the gaffes and maladroit, way-too-tense guffaws, the painful demonstration of how ill-at-ease he is around anyone not in his inner circle, that these are not mistakes he is making so much as admissions. He can’t help himself because he can’t help himself.

All of which is to say, this is not the way I wanted to see Mr. Bungle come back into the conversation, but the band is on permanent hiatus and Romney is Mr. Bungle now.

So to offset the necessity of pointing that out, and celebrating one of the great bands of the ’90s, whom I wrote fondly about here and here, let’s offer up one tasty track from each of their proper albums.

Mr. Bungle is dead (well, he is alive, his campaign, not so much), long live Mr. Bungle.

“Slowly Growing Deaf”:

“Desert Search for Techno Allah” (Still possibly one of the best song titles of all time):

“Sweet Charity”:

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Ten Albums That Supposedly Suck (But Do Not): #8 & #7

8. Fantômas, Fantômas (1999)

This one is a bit of a stretch; it may even be cheating a little bit to include it since it’s not (necessarily) dismissed. On the other hand, it’s primarily recognized by Mike Patton aficionados. That’s fine, but it should have broader appeal for anyone looking for staggeringly original music and may be just what the doctor should have ordered for anyone bored with convention and cynicism. This is challenging music to listen to, and it’s definitely challenging to write about—but that only seems fair since it was quite obviously challenging to conceive and execute.

People who seem disinclined to check this out may be understandably intimidated by the notion of an album without lyrics, particularly when it features one of the eminent vocalists of his generation. More, when that singer is (ostensibly) utilizing an entire album without an intelligible sound other than shrieks, screams and imitations of violent acts, it’s…well, a tough sell. On the other hand, what part of a Melvins, Mr. Bungle and Slayer mash-up could you possibly be unexcited about? (Fantomas, for anyone not in the know, features former Bungle bassist Trevor Dunn, Melvins guitarist and mad genius Buzz Osborne and Slayer drum god Dave Lombardo.)

Once again, it’s challenging to relate what this uber-supergroup’s 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, unabashedly out there, which one would expect from Patton—who does not sing so much as employ his seemingly limitless vocal range as a fourth instrument. 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 material obliges its audience to surrender expectations and meet Patton on his own anomalous 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.

7. Living Colour, Stain (1993)

Even though Living Colour is still making excellent music today, they are mostly remembered as the band who did “Cult of Personality” two decades and change ago. Some people remember that their second album, Time’s Up was an improvement on the (outstanding) debut, and for a minute Living Colour was one of the biggest bands in the world. Then they made a third album and…that was that—at least for another ten long years. That third album was many degrees harder, darker and more difficult than their first two albums, which might explain why it did not go over. But how to reconcile the lack of love with the fact that in some regards Stain was their best album yet?

Losing the brilliant bassist Muzz Skillings, who bolted after the second album, could have been a crippling blow (he was that good) but when ancient school session wizard Doug Wimbish stepped into the mix the band did not miss a beat—literally. WImbish brought a funky, in your face dynamic and he and drummer Will Calhoun formed an unbreakable rhythm section: deep, elastic and loud. The star of the show, as always, is Vernon Reid, who is a human encyclopedia of sound. From the hat-tip to grunge stylings in “Go Away” to the typically ear-burning pyrotechnics of “Leave It Alone” to the Robert Fripp-esque atmospherics in “Nothingness”, Reid covers all the bases while refining his own idiosyncratic style.

So what’s not to love? Well, for one thing, this is definitely not a flawless record. A handful of songs, like “Ignorance is Bliss” and “This Little Pig” are rather paint-by-number—not to mention lyrically clichéd. Some of the songs, like “Postman” and “Never Satisfied” may have just been too severe for the delicate ears of alternative rock fans, circa ’93. Some of the songs may have been a bit too much, like the disorienting “Hemp” or the mirthfully provocative “Bi”. And none of the remaining songs were destined to be radio hits, and little on this album is as user-friendly as most of the material on the first two albums. Take it or leave it: no other band on the planet could ever make a song like “Wall”, which is capable of shaking you, making you smile and seeing the world with new ears.

All of which may explain why this one did not help Living Colour become the most popular and influential band of the ‘90s, which they would/could/should have been. Even for fans who got it, then, and endorse it now, Stain is a grueling, confrontational album, and one that leaves the listener more than a little exhausted. These are the types of albums that are considered uncompromising, courageous, even ahead of their time. They are also the types of albums that don’t sell a ton of copies or necessarily convert new fans. “WTFF”, indeed.

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Trey Spruance, Super Genius

I used to believe it was one of the minor musical tragedies of the last quarter-century that the great Mr. Bungle could not keep it together. Three spectacular albums (each better than the last) and…done. It seemed neither fair nor possible that one band with so much talent and eccentric, rejuvenating brilliance would call it quits. A lot of diehard fans, like myself, thought the individual musicians were making a big mistake; how could they walk away from what they’d created? I’ve since come to realize –and appreciate– that regardless of the reasons (one may have simply been that there literally were too many ideas and possible directions for one band to handle, plain and simple), the demise of Bungle was, ironically, a blessing on multiple fronts. For one, the band could end on the highest of notes, and secondly, it freed the boys up to leap headlong into their various –and quite varied– obsessions and distractions.

While assessing their third and final album, California, on the occasion of its 10 year anniversary (in 1999) I concluded thusly:

And so, it’s a shame that the boys couldn’t keep the party going after Y2K, but considering the subsequent gifts we have received from Secret Chiefs 3, Tomahawk, and Fantômas, it seems churlish to complain. Besides, if Bungle was going to go out on top, the third time was a charm—the project where all the disparate elements came together. California is an album that sums up the 20th century while burning the bridge to the 21st, an eternal fin-de-siècle celebration.

I’ve written, lovingly, about one of those “distractions” (indeed, Mr. Bungle was itself a “distraction” considering Patton was also the front-man for Faith No More, and fans of that band are still trying to get over the disintegration of that band), Fantomas, and also given righteous and well-warranted props to another Patton side-project, Tomahawk. Of course, the peripatetic Mr. Patton scarcely needs additional accolades, and he continues to stalk his untamed compulsions down roads that are at times beyond belief (see links above) and other times…eh. He remains the ultimate iconoclast; easily the best vocalist of his generation, he could have sold out any number of times along the way and retired, fat and (un)happy, half-baked on some beach in Malibu. He is not infallible but his integrity is unimpeachable. Trever Dunn, bandmate and bassist, has gone on to work closely with John Zorn and stake his claim as a big-time serious musician: check him out here and if you want to hear something off the straight and narrow-minded, pick up his amazing Sister Phantom Owl Fish.

But the primary reason I could tolerate Mr. Bungle’s dissolution, and now find myself grateful for it, is Secret Chiefs 3. Here, listen:

Flutes, violins, guitars, sitars. Eastern beats and insane time signatures…what’s not to love?

If you’re thinking Ravi Shankar meets Metallica you’re not half-wrong, but that scarcely scratches the surface.

Which brings us to Trey Spruance, the final piece of the Bungle puzzle. Listening to the beautiful back alleys where each of these musicians has set up camp during the past decade, it’s at once easy and not-so-easy to figure out who contributed what. Indeed, Patton helped write a great deal of the music and both Dunn and Spruance –in addition to writing a ton of the music– also contributed lyrics (for instance, Spruance penned the words to “None of Them Knew They Were Robots”, embedded above). Still, you can somewhat appreciate the kitchen-sink sensibility Patton brought to the table and the more broad and refined compositional acumen of Dunn. But Spruance was, in many regards, the technician who supplied the panoramic palette and created/invented sounds that conjure up ancient history and science fiction, sometimes at the same time. Perhaps the best distillation of this genius is a track from their second album Disco Volante called “Desert Search for Techno Allah”. From 1995 (!) this fantastic mind-fuck is delicious and disorienting and there is no other band who has ever produced anything like it:

Secret Chiefs 3, at first a Fantomas-like side project for both Spruance and, initially, Dunn, made two albums in the ’90s: First Grand Constitution and Bylaws (1996) and Second Grand Constitution and Bylaws. The first is a worthwhile curio, but not essential; the second one is a radical step forward and is a crucial addition to any collection. I could say a great deal about this one, but why not have a look and a listen (and appreciate violin virtuoso and sometime-member Eyvind Kang, who I’ve talked about at some length here):

That is the full splendor of the aesthetic Spruance is tapping into: quirky rhythms, non-Western instruments invoking an altogether different time and place –like the soundtrack of a Pharoah being mummified.

1999 brought the one-two punch of California and the first Fantomas effort and by the time a new century rolled around, Patton was fronting Tomahawk and scores of spurned Faith No More and Bungle aficionados wondered if a fate worse than Y2K had actually occurred.

But in 2001 Spruance made it clear that the side project was now a full time endeavor: Book M is a near masterpiece and while it’s delightfully weird enough to scare off the amateurs, there is abundant joy to be found within. While considering my choice of the Top 50 albums of the last decade, here is what I had to say about this one:

A lot of people worried way too much about whether or not Mr. Bungle would ever make another album after California (I know, I was one of them). Little did we know that if they had, we may never have gotten Tomahawk, or the resurgence of Secret Chiefs 3. Who? Exactly.

To put it simply, Secret Chiefs 3 are the “other” guys from Mr. Bungle. But to say that Secret Chiefs 3 are Mr. Bungle without the vocals does not even come close to describing them, or doing their remarkable music the slightest justice. On the other hand, trying to get a handle on their sound is hopeless, and I mean that in a good way. They blend a sort of surf-thrash guitar (courtesy of mastermind Trey Spruance) but remain grounded in a narcotic jazz groove (thanks to bassist and composer Trevor Dunn), with a distinctly Eastern (think Indian meets Bollywood in a cloud of opium) influence, with a healthy dose of Morricone. And then throw in the sax and violin (the great Eyvind Kang) and quickly you realize that…we’re not in Kansas anymore. Of course, we never were. Obviously anyone who is familiar with Mr. Bungle or Fantomas should lap this up, but not to worry, if you’ve never heard of any of these acts, an album like Book M is capable of satisfying anyone with open ears. It’s not deliberately abstruse or eccentric for the sake of being eccentric; there is most definitely a very calculated (and complicated) method to this madness. And madness never felt so fresh and funky.

Still, very little could have prepared anyone for the next installment, Book of Horizons, which was allegedly the first part of a trilogy. If what eventually follows is half as good as the opening salvo (now seven years old, already!), we are in for something special, and Spruance will begin to solidify his case as one of the most important –if largely unheralded– musicians of his time. Speaking of time… it’s been seven years. It is well documented that Spruance is a perfectionist (a tendency that at least results in superlative recordings), and he strikes me as an old school technician; almost more of a literary figure than a musician. His albums are more like events, and signify a painstaking process of trying to get things exactly right. If he was easier on himself, he could clearly churn out very good albums on a more regular basis –but he is not interested in very good albums, he seeks to make perfect albums. Book of Horizons is as close to perfect as anything he has done yet, and –based on live footage available on the Internets– the new shit is going to be well worth the wait.

In fairness, the dude has not been incommunicado. In fact, in 2008 he oversaw the Secret Chiefs 3 brand taking on the John Zorn songbook, and Xaphan: Book of Angels Volume 9 is exactly what one would expect: Spruance & Co. interpreting Zorn’s postmodern klezmer/classical arrangements. Then in 2010 we got Satellite Supersonic Vol. 1, which features some newer material and older live stuff. More than enough to tide us over.

And he has taken the show on the road on at least a semi-regular basis. I made it a point to be in the right place at the right time and caught them last night at a small venue in D.C.

The succinct review follows: Un-fucking-believable. I always figured Spruance and the crew would be a scorching live experience and I was correct. Hearing all those sounds is enough of an experience, but seeing them make the sounds and how it all comes together is both thrilling and inspiring. During the 9o minute set some old favorites were expertly revisited and several new songs were featured. Fingers shall remain crossed that some (or all!) of that material will be on the subsequent release(s). Having the opportunity to speak briefly with the man in question I got right down to business: When is the next installment set to come out? In May was the answer. After seven years that seems like it will be here before we know it. And we can, hopefully, contribute further to the ongoing discussion of this legit heavyweight who has made some of the best music you owe it to yourself to own.

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Mr. Bungle’s California: Ten Years Later

bungle

PopMatters keeps the party going, plowing through the calendar year of 1999, reminiscing about important albums that dropped that year. For my part, I’m tackling the yang to Fantomas’ yin: Mr. Bungle’s California. These two albums bookend Mike Patton’s frenetic, fin-de-siecle  inspiration, and also signify two of the most significant and satisfying projects he has been involved with. Not quite as difficult to describe as Fantomas, California is nevertheless quite challenging to properly assess or summarize because, by nature of the band’s material, Mr. Bungle is uncategorizable. In a good way.

Link (with sound samples) here.

13 July 1999
Mr. Bungle
California

From the sounds of the seagulls and surf that open the album to the century-ending clang that closes it, Mr. Bungle’s California covers more ideas and images than most bands could cram into a career. Anyone who has fallen under Bungle’s uncanny spell can attest to the fact that when you hear one of their albums, it stays heard. This is music that takes you somewhere, including places you did not know existed. Mr. Bungle gets inside your mind and remains there.

Mr. Bungle only released three albums in the ‘90s (in part because the various members kept busy with other projects, like Faith No More, Fantômas, and Secret Chiefs 3, all of whom made incredible and important recordings during that decade), and each successive album represented a considerable leap forward. The band’s self-titled 1991 debut was an ambitious, genre-splicing experiment that combined carnivalesque whimsy with occasionally disturbing subject matter: it was about what happened after the circus left town, metaphorically speaking. Mr. Bungle endures as a psychedelic hall of mirrors that remains delightful and disorienting, no matter how many times you hear it. Their next release, 1995’s Disco Volante, upped the ante and managed somehow to be both weirder and (at times) more accessible than its predecessor. A song like “Desert Search for Techno Allah” (and before you even listen to it, think of the awesomely odd images that title conjures) defies description—it’s a techno mash-up with eye-popping musical proficiency. The band’s brand of weird science offers no quarter: this material affronts non-believers and turns adventurous listeners into fanatics.

Incredibly, after another four-year interval, California synthesized the band’s numerous compulsions (surf music, proto-funk, eastern rhythms, jazzy noodling, and ingenious yet oddball lyrics) into a cohesive whole. The confidence and focus displayed throughout their third album is on an entirely other level. On each of the ten tracks you might hear traces of Frank Zappa (both the comic and the composer), Captain Beefheart, Ennio Morricone, and the Ventures. The band cruises from one influence to the next with arresting ease, perfecting a sort of laid-back lunacy, a controlled hurricane of intensely opposite styles that inexplicably make complete sense.

Aside from being the Mr. Bungle masterpiece (Disco Volante boasts some of the band’s finest moments, but taken in its entirety it’s a tad too disjointed and self-indulgent; it’s a schizophrenic near-miss), California is the culmination of their cut-and-paste surrealism, marrying the stop-on-a-dime intensity with a kitchen sink sensibility that incorporates the entire universe into its vision. More so than any previous album, Mike Patton’s prodigious (and possibly unparalleled) vocal range is fully utilized, allowing him to explore everything from retro-crooning (“Vanity Fair”) to campy faux-lounge (“Pink Cigarette”) to relatively straightforward rock (“The Air-Conditioned Nightmare”) to the utterly unclassifiable (“Golem II: The Bionic Vapour Boy”). The band continuously weaves a west-coast vibe into the mix, winking and nodding with playful but heartfelt invocations of the Beach Boys, Hollywood, and (as always) surf music filtered through a distinctively postmodern heavy metal M.O.

California is not even a collection of songs so much as miniature sonic movies. Take “Ars Moriendi”, for instance. The opening seconds somehow blend a thrash guitar/drum riff with an accordion waltz (imagine hardcore gypsy music), then Patton enters with his operatic flourishes, singing lyrics like “All my bones are laughing / As you’re dancing on my grave”. The song navigates the incongruous edge between head-bang abandon and Turkish wedding music that makes you want to slamdance while doing a polka. Or consider “Goodbye Sober Day”, which is like “I Am the Walrus” on Peyote—think the outro of Syd Barrett’s “Bike” thrown into a blender with multi-tracked falsetto wails cut by one of Sun Ra’s stranger big band workouts. And that’s just the first 30 seconds. The song goes on to incorporate Gregorian chants (convincingly) and a Balinese monkey chant (seriously). All while the band slowly disintegrates into oblivion like the bad guys’ faces melting at the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark.

There are also gems of calm and clarity, like “The Holy Filament”, which showcases Patton as choir boy, and “Sweet Charity”, which sounds like Phil Spector working with Brian Wilson. Then there is the track that epitomizes what worked best on the previous albums, “None of Them Knew They Were Robots”. Here is the Bungle aesthetic at full effect: Hawaiian music crashing into Carl Stalling cartoon territory—keyboards and horns and Trey Spruance’s quicksilver chord changes—with a brief but convincing Elvis impersonation serving as a sick cherry on top. Oh, and it somehow manages to swing. It’s a madcap laugh, to be certain, but it’s also absolute genius.

And so, it’s a shame that the boys couldn’t keep the party going after Y2K, but considering the subsequent gifts we have received from Secret Chiefs 3, Tomahawk, and Fantômas, it seems churlish to complain. Besides, if Bungle was going to go out on top, the third time was a charm—the project where all the disparate elements and obsessions came together. California is an album that sums up the 20th century while burning the bridge to the 21st, an eternal fin-de-siècle celebration.

  Sean Murphy

Air. Conditioned. Nightmare. Live.

 

Ars Moriendi. Live.

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Fantômas: 10 Years Later

fantomas

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
Fantômas
Fantômas

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.

Sean Murphy


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