The first time I saw Mike Patton live, eleven years ago with Faith No More, he flopped around like a fish onstage, wiggling up and down gasping for air. At fifteen, too young for Kiss and too sheltered for GWAR, that was crazy theatrics. Years later, I saw him touring with Mr. Bungle and was floored when he picked up a shoe someone in the audience had thrown onstage, urinated in it and then drank from it. Needless to say, Patton has created quite a name for himself due to his insane antics. However, what is often neglected in discussions about Patton is that the man is an amazing vocalist and visionary. Upon Patton’s ascension to vocalist, Faith No More was transformed from a dime-a-dozen funk-metal band into a creative, influential force that showcased his amazing talent as a vocalist with his ability to go from an ethereal, almost lullaby-like voice to a guttural grunt, often within the same song. Ask any nu-metal flavor of the month and he will tell you that he too wants to be like Mike. Mr. Bungle showed his truly wacky side, his droll and often scatological sense of humor, and managed to put out compelling, if often confusing genre-collages. Lately, with Fanotmas, the highly awaited collaboration with Dan “The Automator” Nakamura called Peeping Tom, and now Tomahawk, Patton has taken genre-bending collage to a whole new level.
Upon entrance into the Oakland Arena, something immediately seemed different. Just in time to catch Tomahawk walking on stage, Patton, bedecked in a police uniform, jumped behind a long waist-high wall of keyboards, synthesizers, effects, microphones, and all sorts of other stuff. Curious to see whether or not Patton could pull off being a frontman while playing instruments, I found him handling the task amicably, if not differently. Here was Patton, weird as ever, yet in a strange way confined, brilliantly, by his inability to stray too far from his soundbank. Unable to flop around, or get too crazy, unable to let everything go, Patton instead got to role-play as psychotherapy for the whole crowd.
With Tomahawk, Patton seems focused on using his voice as another instrument to sometimes go along with, and sometimes conflict with—often in the same song—the band’s chaotic, boozy, metallic sludge-jazz and his carousel keyboard noise. Duane Denison’s laid back crunch sounds just as beautiful as it ever did with the Jesus Lizard and is a perfect complement to Patton’s all-over-the-map vocalism; the rhythm section of Kevin Rutmanis (Melvins, Cows) and John Stanier (Helmet) is adept to the many time-changes invoked by Patton’s schizophrenic singing. The effects run the gamut of weird-noisy, weird-annoying (but enjoyably annoying at that), weird-loud, weird-god-I-wish-I-had-worn-earplugs, weird-I-think-that-kidney-stone-I-had-just-broke, weird-I-think-only-dogs-are-supposed-to-hear-these-tones and are used very smartly. Much like in his solo “Adult Themes for Voice”, his vocals are highly experimental and well-orchestrated; well-planned and perfectly played rather than just meaningless screams into a microphone.
Whereas my earlier experiences of Patton onstage have been marked by an id run wild, in Tomahawk, trapped behind this superego wall—this inability to move about and get physically wacky or play watersports of any kind, of which the uniform is some strange manifestation of the force that wants to arrest that id—we get to see a fight ensue between the two. There seems to be a struggle for control between the need to let loose and the need to contain that is both visually and aurally compelling. Though half of the audience was annoyed, the half that dug it was entranced, stunned by the display and the music. This was a short set, only 30 minutes or so and therefore not enough time for me to fully get what Tomahawk is trying to accomplish as a live act, but I saw nothing here that didn’t impress me immensely.
Something akin to watching When Animals Attack, there is some guilty pleasure in watching Patton go from nice and gentle-sounding to pure noise hysteria in the same verse as he lashes out, much like what happens to the unsuspecting man who just picked up the innocent looking pit bull’s chew toy, thereby fucking with the wrong dog. Or, perhaps Tomahawk’s music, and Patton’s persona is explained like a sadist cooking a lobster. He drops the lobster in and lets it swim awhile, then fucks with the heat bringing the pot to a boil so that the lobster starts screaming and then brings the heat down so that the lobster feels safe and placid, and then he turns the heat back on and now the lobster is paranoid, he turns down the heat, etc. and the lobster is one big psychological mess oozing around in the pot. It is tough to tell whether Patton is the lobster or the sadist, because there seems to be this external fight between the two of them onstage; the sadist heeling it up to the audience, or the fragile wounded kite wavering about in perilous winds. Either way, the thing tastes damn good with some butter.
Complaining to my friend about the short Tomahawk set, I hadn’t taken into account that Tool had something of their own that they wished to accomplish and they were going to need some time to cram it all in. The last time I saw Tool was in 1993 at the Lollapalooza sidestage. I was immediately in love with the prog-metal textured sound and entranced by the stage presence of frontman Maynard James Keenan. That day Maynard, to the moshing throng, said something to the effect of “I don’t know why you are all here, you are the people who kicked my ass in high school and called me a faggot.” If those were his sentiments in 1993, I can only imagine what they may be now as Tool is selling-out 25,000 seat arenas to more of the same. It is partly that same reason that I have lost interest in seeing Tool as a live act the past six years or so, I have little interest in arena shows, or, for that matter, the people in high school who called me a faggot and kicked my ass. However, buoyed by the idea that a large arena might actually help with the theatrics of such an epic sounding and philosophically/psychologically-minded band, I figured what the heck.
That Tool’s website claims Maynard James Keenan came to Los Angeles “to explore the possibilities of sacred temple architecture and regeneration,” is a key to understanding the atmosphere of a Tool show and works as a prime understanding of the Tool hermeneutic. It is through Tool’s obsessive treatment of the body that we see this idea of lived space, in both cases, at least for Tool, holy lived space, come to light. For Tool, it seems, invariably views the body much like a building, a lived space that acts as a representation, a marker or exo-presentation if you will, of what goes on inside. This is an obsession to first make assumptions about the inhabitant of that particular mortal coil, through structural analysis of the body as a behavioral entity and foremost, to try and break beneath, or rather within that structure to find the hamster pushing the gears.
Set to a rumbling, raucous, hauntingly beautiful and mind-numbing soundtrack, the audience is treated to a visually stunning series of computerized images of bodies rendered helpless, bodies tortured and most significantly, bodies incomplete or formless via a series of short movies that run coincidental to the music. Formlessness begets dissection; dissection that when done sparingly, say a patch of meat removed over a vital organ, gives insight to inner workings, but when done too deliberately, as happens to one subject who is sliced symmetrically, leads to death. This formlessness seems to indicate a holistic dualism.
However, this dualism is also indicative of a psychological sense of loss, alienation and desire for something that is missing. Omnipresent in these mini-movies is the privileged status of the pineal gland, illustrated as a third eye. As many ancient societies believed that the pineal gland was the location of the soul, and the birth of modernism rests partly in the Cartesian identification of the same as the sight of the individual mind, we can see a structural link between us and those that came before, with an insistence that somewhere along the way we fucked up and got rid of the ritual, became too rational, too predictable. Tool is grateful for the individualism that is spawned with modernism, as echoed in Keenan’s strong “avoid the herd” lyrics, but also makes a call for the collective to be experienced. Somewhere in the ether of body and guts, lies the soul, blessed with sight. It is not through looking within that we connect with the primal or the essential—an impossibility, as here even the double-helix of DNA is presented as a mystical piece of mathematical art of a higher power rather than a distancing from a prime mover—but rather through ritualistic behaviors, the telling of stories and understanding their significance as a purgative that allows us to regenerate the spirit.
It is Tool’s attempt to find this sacred regeneration somewhere in the intersection of music, art, ritualism and catharsis. Granted, most of Tool’s fans have probably never read Jung, Levi-Strauss, Lacan, Capra or Campbell, and therefore don’t get to mentally masturbate with a critical reading, but nonetheless, Maynard and company seemed content to pull them in the old-fashioned way with a two-hour marathon of tribal communion set to the tone of Adam Jones’s meandering psychedelic guitar, Justin Chancellor’s bottom-heavy anchoring bass, Danny Carey’s rhythmic pounding and Maynard’s primal utterances, gyrations and genuflections. Even if you were to fixate on Maynard’s inimitable stage presence, rather than the visual stimuli, here too you would see a postmodern tribesman, mostly naked except for a loincloth (okay, tiny briefs) bedecked in body-paint, imaging the body as a window into another realm. Though there is always a sense of sham within shamanism, and here it is not fully escaped, Tool accomplishes only what perhaps Jane’s Addiction has done before them in alternative popular music, which is meld the spiritual and the musical in a way that is stomachable to non-believers such as myself. We can still respect the attempt and feel themselves drawn in by the hypnotic power of the music and visuals without succumbing to the sacrifice.