Man, oh man, is Mike Patton talented, but that talent has never translated into stardom. Perhaps the general populace is put off by his depraved lyrics or they just can't keep up with his prodigious musical output in his various incarnations. No matter what the explanation, Patton has never had more than a small, devoted cult audience. Whether inadvertently kick-starting rap-metal with Faith No More, getting in touch with his inner Frank Zappa in Mr. Bungle, or just indulging whatever warped muse he answers to with Fantômas, Patton has always made challenging music that not enough people hear. That streak continues with Mit Gas, the sophomore disc from his latest band, Tomahawk, released on Patton's label, Ipecac Recordings.
It's not as though Patton and his bandmates Duane Dennison (guitar, as well as the band's leader), John Stanier (drums), and Kevin Rutmanis (bass) are worried about their lack of accessibility. All have pulled tours of duty with underground acts (Jesus Lizard, Helmet, and the Melvins, respectively) and they're more interested in technical precision and absurdity than they are with selling records. Heck, the first single off Mit Gas is titled "Rape This Day". Good luck finding that on your radio dial.
But there does exist a viable market hungry for the type of twisted metal Tomahawk plays, and Patton acknowledges that in the opening lyric of the first track, "Birdsong": "I'll feed you now", he growls, employing one of the half-dozen vocals tics in his arsenal. That's one of the rare instances where anything can be ascertained from Patton's inscrutable lyrics. As a recent New York Times concert review of Tomahawk noted, "[Patton] doesn't believe that rock is about honesty, about laying oneself bare, about truth and getting under the skin of his listeners. For him, it is entirely about artifice, and much of it specifically about vocal techniques." Could delivery of lines like "the diaphragm of a nation" (from "Rape This Day") and the übercreepy/funny "I am the harelip / Give me one more kiss" ("Harelip") be what makes Patton a standout and drives away potential fans? Again, Patton doesn't appear to care.
But even if one can't get past Patton's skewed lyrics and hell-torched delivery, there's no denying he's surrounded himself with ace musicians. Dennison, Stanier, and Rutmanis generally stick to heavy-as-hell faux-death metal, with an innovative twist on nearly every track. Horror-movie keyboards welcome the listener to "Rape This Day", while "You Can't Win" veers close to California-era Mr. Bungle with its surfed-out guitars and its tendency to change gears at the drop of a hat. The band buzzes around Patton as he unveils his deepest, cartooniest bass voice. Meanwhile, "Mayday" sound like a haunted submarine (there's no other way to describe it) with agitated guitars and Patton's fuzzed-out voice jumping from speaker to speaker before the evil clears for the chorus and the band sounds like, of all groups, Foo Fighters. It's the album's most accessible 30 seconds.
The band throws in a few curveballs as well. Most notable is "Desastre Natural", a gentle waltz sung in Spanish, that would sound out of place where except a Mike Patton album. If the inclusion of this track doesn't convince you of Patton's demented brilliance, then you'll never be swayed. The same could be said for Mit Gas's final two tracks, "Harlem Clowns" and "Aktion F1413". The former is a mostly instrumental exercise that gives the musicians a chance to shine out from under Patton's vocals, though they do have to contend with a looped sound clip that insists "I don't know how to read notes". (It's not as funny as Patton's "This beat could win me a Grammy" off "Pop 1" from Tomahawk's self-titled debut, but it's a decent joke nevertheless.) "Harlem Clowns" ends with a laundry list of seemingly unrelated musicians being read off -- the band being weird for weirdness' sake.
Album closer "Aktion F1413" plays like Patton's answer to Radiohead's "Fitter, Happier" interlude, as a computer-modulated voice offers "The Basic Principles of Hand-to-Hand Combat". (Rule number one, "Be aggressive" namechecks a track from Faith No More's Angel Dust, for what it's worth.) Intercut between these rules is Patton's least anguished singing, but lest one think Tomahawk's gone soft, the album ends with an overmodulated guitar and drum assault.
Not that there was ever any doubt, given his track record, but Mit Gas delivers the goods for Patton's small, devoted cult audience hungry for rock. If you're not a Tomahawk devotee, wait a week and Patton'll probably have released another album. Maybe you'll like that one instead. In the meantime, Achtung! Mit Gas!