Sure, it would be easy to blame the sudden artistic tendencies of Tomahawk on Mike Patton. He is the big name, he has a reputation for being one of the more controlling musicians out there, and he has a broad enough sense of what music can be to have commited mouth farts to digital media. The appropriation of traditional Native American works for performance in a hard rock setting, well, it just seems like something that Patton would have thought up and forced on the lackeys he calls his bandmates.
Except, that’s not how it worked at all.
Despite Patton’s intimidating presence at the forefront of the band, doing all of the vocals and adding the noise that pushes the sound of the band beyond that of the typical rock getup, it’s never really been his band. It’s Duane Denison’s, the Jesus Lizard guitar wizard with the angular playing style and the unconventional songwriting technique. Never has that been more true than right now, as Anonymous is almost entirely Denison’s doing. He’s the one who toured reservations with Hank Williams III, he’s the one who did piles of research on Native American culture and customs, he’s the one who found the turn-of-the-century transcriptions of Native American songs, he’s the one who decided they’d make killer songs for a new Tomahawk album, a way for the band to reach back to the heritage that its name implied. It is in this way that Anonymous was born, its title a reference to the fact that none of the songs have identifiable writers, as they were entirely uncredited in the transcriptions from which these new versions are derived.
In fact, Patton had so little to do with the origins of Anonymous that he wasn’t even in the same state as Denison and drummer John Stanier when they were recording the basic tracks for the album. They recorded the guitars, the bass, and the drums, sent the tracks to Patton, and let him do his thing. And, for once, it sounds as though Patton was stumped. For much of Anonymous, it sounds as though Patton is stretching for ideas as he tries to augment Denison and Stanier’s tracks. On some tracks, he adds english lyrics and rock ‘n roll melodies, giving the songs a far more modern (if also far less “authentic”) feel — the one-two punch of “Omaha Dance”, a slow burn that could have been a Faith No More B-side, and “Sun Dance”, a track that falls a bit more on the spastic, Mr. Bungle side of the Patton coin, are actually fantastic examples of where this works — while on other tracks, he simply intones, occasionally content to follow Denison’s guitar lines wherever they happen to go. Patton is trying to have his cake and eat it too, sometimes indulging in his experimental tendencies, sometimes trying to please the crowd with pop songs. It’s an approach that unfortunately gives the air of non-commitment, as though he never quite decided how to approach his source material.
Denison, on the other hand, is quite obviously fully invested in the project, and despite the non-traditional instrumentation he’s using to convey it, the conviction with which he plays betrays a true appreciation for his source material. Opener “War Song” is every bit as menacing as its title would imply, though not aggressive in the least — it’s more foreboding than anything, and punctuating it with a persistent thunderstorm was a nice touch on Patton’s part. Stanier’s drums take center stage in the utterly wonderful “Ghost Dance”, a song that sounds minimalist until you start to hear the layers upon layers of percussive sounds snaking around each other halfway through the song. Denison even tosses in a lovely little solo guitar piece at the end, something called “Long, Long Weary Day”, a track he calls a “parlor song”, apparently from the same era as the Native American tracks featured on the album. Whether it’s as a moment of context, juxtaposition, or just a pretty way to finish the album, it’s a nice touch.
It is with Denison’s commitment in mind that the tendency exists to forgive Patton’s gratuitous (not to mention vaguely cheesy) rhythmic repetition of the word “totem” on “Totem” and his decision to turn the extended middle section of “Mescal Rite 2” into one of his now trademarked hip-hop moments. While Patton does add to the variety of the album and occasionally gives his rabid band of listeners something to sing along to, he is more of an overbearing afterthought on an album oozing with the care of its primary driving force. Denison might want to look into the release of an instrumental version of Anonymous; compelling as it is, it falls just short of doing his vision justice.