Mike Patton likes his boxes all neat and tidy. While his early days with Mr. Bungle and Faith No More were filled with hungry musicians constantly rewriting and reinventing the playbook, his projects since Faith No More’s original late 1990s split have been adventurous but almost always delivered as expected, on deadline and largely colored between the lines. Tomahawk is the hard-rock concern, Fantomas the experimental noise-punk grind. Peeping Tom tugged on the hip-hop and pop nerves, his collaborations with composers Kaada and Vannier allowed him the opportunity to expand his vocal palate and toy with the boundaries between the electronic and the organic.
Every once in a while, Patton tossed listeners a true curveball – say, Fantomas’ Delirium Cordia or Tomahawk’s Anonymous, both ambitious outings met mostly with silence or muted praise. So, when you hear Tomahawk has a new LP, as it does on Ipecac Recordings on 26 March, you know what you’re going to get. Or do you? Tonic Immobility, the band’s fifth LP and their first since 2013’s Oddfellows, doesn’t sound resigned to repeat the familiar tropes and traps of the past. Yes, there is some vintage Tomahawk on here – the single “Business Casual”, among others, could’ve been an outtake from the quartet’s 2001 self-titled debut. But there also are amazing departures, incredibly textured asides, and several flights of fancy.
The eighth track, “Howlie”, is an anomaly all around, with an understated rhythm section that seems to hint at bossa nova rather than the rigid angularities of post-hardcore living. Guitarist Duane Denison’s guitar and keyboard work on the track is immaculately colorful and, though the piece does descend into proto-typical Tomahawk choruses, the tone of its verses is bizarrely other. A breakdown about halfway through, where Patton takes a bit of a back seat, and Denison flicks out tinny, funereal refrains, is downright melancholy. It’s a welcomed change of pace and elevates Tonic Immobility above some of the retread (however exhilarating) of “Oddfellows”.
Then, there’s “Sidewinder”. The piece starts with a minimal but delectable backbeat from drummer John Stanier and, believe it or not, spare notes from a piano. The piano continues, unexpectedly, to keep time, and Patton, ever the carnival barker, even sings melodically, vulnerably. (He does the same on parts of “Doomsday Fatigue”, a COVID-19 theme song if I’ve ever heard one.) The band play out the mood on “Sidewinder” for almost two minutes, then, without warning, launch into a Jesus Lizard-esque stop and start riff, only to return to the pensive bits again later. Patton plays his usual role a little more close to tradition in the second half, bleating out spoken measures and letting out one roar, a real cathartic one, that flows over many, many measures. But the song already has distinguished itself as a bit of an experiment – and a goddamn worthwhile one. It might be one of the better – and atypical – Tomahawk songs ever cut to acetate.
The surprises don’t stop there. “Recoil”, another gem from the LP’s closing half, has all the usual Tomahawk thrash. With bassist Trevor Dunn still standing in for former four-string maniac Kevin Rutmanis, this lineup shows no signs of rustiness or wear and tear. But the verses and bridges, which have an epic scale and even playfulness to them, are reminiscent of Faith No More’s “Just a Man”, another gem in the Patton canon.
Listen, if you liked the pound and grind of Tomahawk’s self-titled LP or 2003’s explosive Mit Gas, or, better yet, past work from Denison, there’s stuff to like here. The closing “Dog Eat Dog”, with its chugging bass and palm-muted lead guitar, could rival most of the Jesus Lizard’s Shot or Blue LPs. “Valentine Shine” is a pitch-perfect roof-raiser, a real rager. “Predators and Scavengers”, while sonically a little ambitious and textured, has a chorus that will blow holes in your speakers. But there’s more to the record than meets the eye – or, better yet, the ear. And, for someone who follows Patton’s crow flights carefully, that’s something to celebrate even in and of itself.