Photo: Ipecac Recordings

Avant-Metal’s Lords of Terror: Fantômas’ Eponymous Debut at 25

Fantômas stand as one of the most audacious music projects of the 1990s. You almost wonder if the quasi-mainstreamish Faith No More held Mike Patton back.

27 April 1999

With Faith No More disbanded and Mr. Bungle on the verge of a 20-year hibernation, word had it in 1998 that vocalist extraordinaire Mike Patton had pulled together his next act, a supergroup featuring members of Mr. Bungle, Melvins, and Slayer— Patton, bassist Trevor Dunn, guitarist Buzz Osbourne, and the godfather of double-kick, drummer Dave Lombardo. Fantômas, they would call themselves, the band name an homage to a supervillain appearing in French, World War I-era pulp novels, a character deemed “Lord of Terror”, which suited this end-of-the-20th-century music project given its predilection for visceral freakshow musicality. 

With this lineup, Patton made at least one thing clear: he had some unfinished business with heavy metal. Don’t we all, the late-stage Cold War kids from single-record-store towns with our crummy teenage garage bands and stacks of Metal Edge, trading tapes and ordering records based solely on the album covers? Metal took all the stereotypes of rock music and pushed them—everything from old-fashioned rebellion to butchered lyrics and assaultive percussion, overdriven amps, and extreme volume. 

Patton, a man of 1,000 bands, came from that upbringing. Mr. Bungle, the band he formed in Eureka, California as a teenager in 1985, began as a death metal act, albeit Laurel and Hardy death metal, mocking the pretensions of the local metal scene with adolescent song titles like “Anarchy Up Your Anus”. Then, across the 1990s, Bungle evolved by fusing metal and cartoony jazz and all-around weirdness over three Warner Bros. releases, closing the decade with California’s (1999) eccentric surf rock and doo-wopa far cry from the thrashy self-produced Raging Wrath of the Easter Bunny (1986).

But when Slayer’s Reign in Blood perpetually spools in the cassette deck of your adolescence, metal just becomes part of your DNA, and nothing short of suburban deprogramming will change that. Here’s where Patton found himself after a decade of big-name record labels, arena shows, and flirtations with commercial success: now going forward with a project he intended to do regardless of Faith No More’s situation.

Fantômas involves Patton’s attempt to make the metal record he wanted to hear. To clarify, the “songs” for the record originated not through conventional four-piece collaboration but as abstractions conceived in Patton’s mind. Knowing this project defied explanation, he worked on the material and recorded a series of crude demos, rough sketches, “a chemical experiment”, according to Patton, (Freeman) under the working title “Diabolik”. Then, demo in hand, he had to recruit the musical henchmen who could bring these songs to life, people he wanted to work with. 

Bassist Dunn was the only sure thing; he and Patton were always on the same wavelength. But Patton’s first choice for drummer, Igor Cabalera of Sepultura, couldn’t wrap his head around the concept. That’s when Patton turned to Slayer’s Lombardo, pitching a side project involving short pieces of music flowing like panels from a comic book. Lombardo bought in immediately, practically devouring the idea— as did Osbourne, likening what he heard on “Diabolik” to Japanese noise-metal (Benedetti). 

With five days of rehearsal and Patton acknowledging how the whole thing “could blow up in our faces”, (Sullivan) Fantômas debuted in June 1998 at Slim’s in San Francisco, followed by a pair of July dates at New York’s Knitting Factory. From the outset, the live arrangement featured Osbourne and Dunn at center stage with Lombardo’s drum kit at stage right, angled and facing Patton, the band “conductor”, Patton waving his arm, moving between handheld and mounted mics behind a deejay setup, legs staggered as though about to take off running, doing his spazzcore thing. In the meantime, anyone hoping to hear plain old Bay Area thrash or something that sounded like Slayer, Melvins, or Mr. Bungle was caught flat-footed, and anyone who wandered into the Knitting Factory by accident would’ve mistaken Fantômas for a comedy act. 

The music is Looney Tunes Grindcore—madcap, scorched-earth, exploiting the cartoonish qualities of thrash, death metal, and hardcore: the frenzied pacing, the stops and starts, the intermittent samples from old European horror films, the wisecracking cacophonous delirium. How did four people ever learn this music? Nothing about Fantômas caters to people who enjoy catchy tunes—and we haven’t even addressed the vocal treatments. 

The scary thing is how natural this is for Patton: the Tasmanian Devil screeches, incoherent babble, Three Stooges noises, and grunting ape sounds. His insistence on voice as an instrument owes influence to Japanese noise rockers Hanatarash as well as John Tardy’s Halloweenish gabble on Obituary’s debut, Slowly We Rot (1989). Again, here’s Patton channeling and rearranging the death-metal clichés; in this instance, the trademark bellows, shrieks, and guttural growls. Given the trajectory of Patton’s 1990s discography, anyone paying attention shouldn’t have been surprised. By now, he was clearly on his way to becoming a musical counterpart to film director David Lynch, building off his 1996 “solo album”, Adult Themes for Voice (an album of “experimental sounds never imagined possible from just voice and microphone”, per the liner notes). Adult Themes is a record that only a Patton fanatic has reason to own, yet a prerequisite to what he would do in Fantômas

Following the New York and San Francisco shows, with Fantômas prepared to record their debut at Brilliant Studios in San Francisco, attention now turned to the business side as Patton’s manager Greg Werckman sought a home for two projects, Fantômas and Maldoror, Patton’s collaboration with Japanese noise artist Masami Akita (aka Merzbow). The Fantômas lineup certainly merited consideration, but head-spinning avant-metal was a hard sell. Not surprisingly, Patton and Werckman (who plied his trade with Alternative Tentacles Records before joining Mercury) started batting the idea of creating a makeshift “label” just to release those records. But Patton was still under contract with Warner Bros, who had first refusal rights on any new project. So Werckman agreed to meet with Warner, traveling to Los Angeles with a recording of Fantômas. The meeting lasted five minutes. Warner didn’t even buy lunch. 

Neither Patton nor Werckman thought they had a bonafide record label on their hands until Buzz Osbourne (whose band was no longer with Atlantic) said, “The Melvins really don’t have a home. Would you be up for putting out our records?” And that’s not all— Osbourne wanted to (as a stunt?) release three Melvins albums in a year. Now they had a label. Osbourne even suggested a name: Ipecac Records (derived from a now-out-of-production, over-the-counter medicine that induces vomiting), with the guarantee that music on this record label will purge you of the drek that’s been rotting in your tummies. 

Ipecac Records opened for business on April Fool’s Day 1999, with Fantômas’ self-titled debut as the label’s first release, slated for 27th April. The cover art features the Spanish version of  a 1965 movie poster, Fantômas Amenaza al Mundo: “Fantômas Threatens the World”. In recognition of a Fantômas graphic novel series that ran in the early 1960s (courtesy of a Mexican publisher), the album functions as an imaginary soundtrack to a comic book with 30 tracks bearing page numbers as song titles. (Though, for comedically superstitious effect, the album skips right over “Page 13”). Emphatically, the format situates Fantômas as stream-of-consciousness thrash metal. Given the degree of mayhem and Patton’s rejection of song structure across the record, it’s impossible to imagine where a track is headed. The compositions are deranged, frenetic, and maliciously overwhelming. Patton, in a 2006 Tape Op interview, even called Fantômas “a pain in the ass to listen to” given what this music demands of the listener. 

Predictably, reactions to this album run the gamut—  avant-garde, inaccessible, paranoid,  weirdness for its own sake, predestined for the underground. Phil Freeman of The Wire acknowledges that what sets Fantômas apart from any musical unit of its time is “the mind-boggling discipline required to execute their maneuvers”, adding that “it’s impossible to hear everything Fantomas are doing with one listen”. Catherine Chambers of Kerrang, seeing Fantômas live, called the technical wizardry of this band “jaw-dropping”. 

To reemphasize, though, the unforeseeable consequence of this album entails the creation of an artist-centric record label that has maintained its business model for a quarter-century at this writing. As a label established, coincidentally, the year of Napster’s birth, Ipecac has held firm to releasing records with no regard for trends while refusing to hover over the shoulders of its artists. As Patton explains, “Ipecac was us realizing we needed to start creating our own universe, where albums that didn’t necessarily fit other, more traditional labels could have a home” (quoted in Kennelty). We might call Ipecac Records a label for musical misfits, a label that has done well because of a core fan base that believes anything Ipecac releases is worth a listen. Fantômas holds up as one of the label’s best-selling records because it so accurately represents what the label is all about. 

Alongside caustically extreme metal bands that channeled end-of-the-millenium anxiety like Dillinger Escape Plan, Botch, and Agoraphobic Nosebleed, Fantômas stand as one of the most audacious music projects to come out of the 1990s. It sounds blasphemous to ponder, but you almost wonder if the quasi-mainstreamish Faith No More held this guy back. For all of Patton’s projects, no other band has demanded more of him in terms of creativity and musicianship— and rarely has a group existed where the members are as telepathically and creatively lined up with one another as Patton, Dunn, Osbourne, and Lombardo. 

Works Cited 

Winda Benedetti. “The Melvins Aren’t Gonna Let You Sit There and Listen.” Spokesman Review: Spokane Edition. Jun 25, 1999. 

Bren Davies. “Mike Patton: Faith No More, Mr. Bungle, Tomahawk, Fantomas.” Tape Op. Issue 53, May-June 2006. 

Phil Freeman. “Mike Patton: Fantômas Hysteria.” The Wire. Issue 254, April 2005. 

Greg Kennelty. “Fantômas’ First Three Albums Reissued by Ipecac Recordings.” Metal Injection, 1 Apr. 2024.

James Sullivan. “Mike Patton Has Faith In His Future: Singer Takes Brainy, Funny Approach to Music with New Band Fantômas.” San Francisco Chronicle, June 14, 1998, pp. 42.

Steffan Vhirazi. “Enemy of the State.” Kerrang! Issue 745, October 4, 1999.