Straddling the line between comedy and nightmare with ease
In this world, nothing is certain except death, taxes and Mike Patton’s work ethic. Patton’s reputation as a workaholic is well earned, so it shouldn’t come as a shock that he’s been busy for the past year. From briefly reuniting Mr. Bungle to re-record their first demo to contributing to video game soundtracks, Patton has, predictably, managed to keep himself occupied despite the ongoing pandemic.
As if recording the Mr. Bungle record wasn’t strenuous enough, Patton also spent much of 2020 in the studio with Tomahawk recording Tonic Immobility, their first full length since 2013.
Aside from Patton, Tomahawk is composed of guitarist Duane Denison (The Jesus Lizard), drummer John Stanier (Helmet, Battles) and bassist Trevor Dunn (Mr. Bungle). For fans of experimental music, Tomahawk is the ultimate supergroup. It’s The Traveling Wilburys for guys who clam up when ordering from a female cashier at McDonald’s if you will.
Shades of each member’s other musical projects exist all over Tonic Immobility. The plodding, dissonant “Doomsday Fatigue” evokes the tritone-inflected gloom of The Jesus Lizard. But it’s not all dirge and sludge—Tomahawk exhibits a dual loyalty to noisy guitar work and chugging, testosterone-laden, Helmet-style hooks, like on “Fatback” and “Dog Eat Dog.” Patton serves up his usual brand of spastic vocal exertions, abruptly shifting from a shrill squawk to the deranged holler of an abusive father or a demented carnival barker on “Howlie,” among other tracks. His gleefully vulgar lyrics are also familiar, often sounding straight out of a Mr. Bungle or Faith No More project, albeit with a modern twist.
As so many albums from the past year have shown people, music about the pandemic can easily fall flat, often coming off as gimmicky, preachy and likely to sound dated further down the road. Tonic Immobility avoids this fate by not being about the pandemic per se, but instead (give or take a couple tracks) providing a distraction from it.
“It’s been a rough year between the pandemic and everything else,” Denison said. “…For as much as the record possibly reflects that, it’s also an escape from the realities of the world. We’re not wallowing in negativity or getting political. For me, rock has always been an alternate reality to everything else. I feel like this is yet another example.”
Tomahawk achieves this sense of escape with the sheer amount of fun that bleeds through both the music—with its sleek, hard rock-style choruses—and Patton’s knuckleheaded lyrics that are full of references to muscle cars, pornography, voodoo, masturbation, cryptids and the dreaded condition known colloquially as whiskey dick.
Patton is obviously a smart guy and every bit a musical genius, as his reputation implies. What makes him so likable, and what helps make this album so refreshing, is his refusal to play that part, his willingness to embrace adolescent drivel. “Serious” artists can sing about their penises too.
As with previous releases by Mr. Bungle and Faith No More, Patton’s lyricism on this project sounds informed by fares like cartoons and trash cinema. But, like any good cartoon or trash flick, there’s a dark undercurrent to it—his jokes are often gross and antisocial, treading the thin line between comedy and nightmare with ease. On “Business Casual,” a man’s flabby gut sags so far downward that it seeps into the cracks on the floor. Images of unicorns and trolley cars exist alongside stark references to alcoholism on “Sidewinder.”
Critics might find fault with the fact that Tonic Immobility is more of the same, taking musical cues from each member’s respective band and exploiting them to death— tritones, hyperactive vocals, dirty jokes and fist-pumping choruses galore, with little substance or risk-taking beneath the surface. That might be true to a degree, but it wouldn’t be fair to slam Tomahawk for merely “going through the motions.” Given that it’s meant to serve an escapist function, Tonic Immobility’s commitment to fun and familiarity is quite fitting. The very fact that it actually lives up to this commitment makes it even more enjoyable. Besides, people could all use a little familiarity right now.