So I am sitting around, thinking to myself about what I am going to write next, and I think to myself “you know, Dean, you have just written about a piece of art that you enjoy by counting and laughing at all of the mistakes, so why not try writing about something you consider good or even great?”. And since I have not written about the recently-realised genius that Michael Allan Patton has been displaying over the last ten to fifteen years, why not?
Around the time that Faith No More‘s internal frictions began to reach the terminal stage, Patton began recording demos of some rather avant-garde songs that did not really fit the format of Faith No More. The story goes that he sent these demos to Buzz Osborne, Trevor Dunn, and Igor Cavalera, with the intention of forming a “supergroup”. Osborne and Dunn were on board, but Cavalera declined. I am not sure exactly how he worded his declination, but I am pretty sure that he listened to the demos and decided to tell Patton that the insanity and chaos entailed by participating in your average Mike Patton project was not something he was up for. Professional musicians usually have a very good idea of what they are or are not capable of, and ones who have been working professionally for as long as Igor Cavalera had been at that time know better than to pretend they are capable of something that they are not. Cavalera did, however, recommend someone whom he thought would be more suitable for the project: Dave Lombardo of Slayer.
Anyone who knows what Slayer is knows how weird that might sound at first. Slayer have always been a thrash band that has developed some noticeable punk influences, but unlike the other three members thereof, Dave Lombardo has apparently always been about reaching out and challenging himself. So when Patton called him up and explained the idea of Fantômas, Lombardo was apparently all about it. At the time, Lombardo had parted ways with Slayer because of conflicts with the other members of the band. Specifically, he had problems with guitarist Kerry King. Six years prior to joining Fantômas, Lombardo‘s wife was pregnant with their first child, and he wanted to be there to witness the birth rather than be out on the road with three men whose demonstrated musical growth has been so miniscule over the past thirty years that it cannot really be charted. But the important point for this article is that Lombardo, sensing a chance to do something other than belt his drum kit in admittedly demanding but fairly invariate manners, jumped at the chance to become part of Fantômas.
I have listened to all four of the main albums that Fantômas have released to date. They remind me of the old GG Allin quote. Specifically, with GG Allin, you do not get what you expect. You get what you deserve. Substitute the name Fantômas for GG Allin’s, and it applies just as much. If not more so. Rather than go in the order that I actually heard the albums in, I will instead talk about these albums in chronological order. The first album is often erroneously referred to as Amenaza Al Mundo. It is, in fact, self-titled, but for reasons still best known to himself, Patton decided to use a version of a Fantômas film poster without the title excised for the album’s cover art. The poster in question is a Spanish translation of the 1965 French film Fantômas se déchaîne. The Spanish version, Fantômas amenaza al mundo, translates into what we call English as Fantômas threatens the world. I think I have just realised why Patton chose to use this poster, complete with Spanish title (Patton is very fluent in the language) as the cover art for the band’s first album.
Be that as it may, I have to wonder exactly what people expecting another Faith No More or even another Mr. Bungle thought when they brought Fantômas the album home and copped an earful of its first notes. Right off the bat, we get Osborne, Dunn, and Lombardo pounding out notes that sound like big pieces of factory machinery beating the shit out of each other whilst Patton makes exaggerated gasping and farting noises. In fact, Fantômas could even be seen partly as a raising of the finger at all of those teenyboppers who made Patton famous and still continue with the whole “did you hear what he just sang? so cooooool!” shite. I do not think on the entire forty-two and a half minutes of Fantômas the album, Patton makes so much as a syllable that can be construed as actual language. Instead, Patton uses a time-honoured technique formally referred to as scatting. Scatting, for those who are unaware, is a vocal technique in which the vocalist, rather than droning out a bunch of words that frequently translate into nothing more than “like this or yer not coooooool”, makes a bunch of sounds that have little or no meaning in order to back up or enhance the music behind them.
A good example of this technique is the Cab Calloway song Minnie The Moocher, which was featured to great effect just before the final act of The Blues Brothers. Patton uses it brilliantly on Fantômas. Instead of trying to lead the listener to what they are supposed to imagine or picture as they listen to the song, his scatting gives a subtle nudge towards whatever one’s brain is inclined to imagine or picture in response to the sound. Sometimes it is annoying, sometimes it is creepy, sometimes it is puzzling. But unlike the overwhelming majority of vocalists who sing about how big their whatever is or how awesome they think they are (read: how much they suck their own straw), it is never boring. Some vague whispers that have never been sourced or cited also have it that the album is intended as a soundtrack to a comic book. This would be consistent with the page numbers given as titles, but there is little else to support the idea. I have seen some pretty bizarre comic books in my lifetime, but I will be damned if I can figure out what the hell kind of comic book would match Fantômas.
Many bands run into problems on their second album. Whether it is because of an overflow of new ideas or things they wanted to try but did not have the budget for on the first, a lot of bands experience a bit of a loss of moderation for album number two. There are examples out there, but I will refrain from delving into that now and just go straight into how this is relevant to Fantômas. I do not know about Buzz Osborne, but by the time Fantômas got around to making album number two, Mike Patton had been featured on four distinct albums with Faith No More. Trevor Dunn had made no less than three with Mike Patton, and probably a number of others I have not heard of. Dave Lombardo had recorded six recordings with Slayer, some of which actually qualify as full-length albums. Thus, the membership of Fantômas went into the studio for the project’s second album with a lot more experience behind them than is normally the case for second albums.
It is just as well, too. For Patton‘s equally insane idea behind the second album was a cover of themes from the scores of various classic films. Hence, The Director’s Cut begins with a cover of one of the most well-known pieces of film scoring in history. A mangling of Nino Rota‘s themes from The Godfather. It starts out fairly… well, faithfully. The main Godfather horn theme is played on what sounds like a harmonica (probably one of Patton‘s keyboards). It goes on for a few bars until a huge eruption is heard from the guitars, bass, and drums. Then all hell breaks loose. Although the following segment with the band playing something that would not sound too unusual coming from a far more awesome version of Slayer only bears the loosest relationship with the film score being covered, it also wound not sound too out of place during the more violent moments of the film. In fact, one clever person on YouChoob has assembled a video of footage from The Godfather and synced it with this song.
In all, there are fourteen covers of themes from film scores on The Director’s Cut. Some are awesome. Some do not do that much for me at all. I have only seen a handful of the films represented on The Director’s Cut. One unconfirmed story has it that the band were going to include a rendition of the theme from Flashdance on the album, but legalities got in the way. (Patton denies that it was ever recorded, but he does not deny that it was under consideration.) But remember that statement I made throughout my little writing about the Finnish band Unholy to the effect that a strong opener is even better when you follow it up with something that is at least equally awesome? Well, Fantômas do exactly that with a cover of Karl Ernst Sasse‘s theme from Der Golem. There are equally doomy moments on the album, but Der Golem according to Fantômas is the first to grab the listener by the butt and assert that “we” need to have a little talk. It is a real pity that Der Golem the film is the only film in the sries that it is part of that is not lost. (Martin Scorcese‘s Film Foundation has estimated that 90 percent of the films made in America prior to 1929 are now lost… flabbergasting, really.)
Two other songs on The Director’s Cut stand out above the pack for me. The first is a cover of a theme from Ronald Stein‘s score for Spider Baby. Spider Baby is about three siblings who suffer from what the film calls Merrye Syndrome, a genetic defect that causes them to mentally, socially, and physically regress, beginning in early puberty. This has nothing to do with the song, but it does explain why the song has a certain air of the murderous child in its delivery. The other stand-out is a cover of Jerry Goldsmith‘s Ave Satani theme from The Omen. It starts out pretty much the same as the theme appears in the films, but after a sombre vocal introduction, the song simply flies off into a speedy rhythm with the same chanting chorus recited over the top. Of the songs I make complaints about, this is one of the few instances where my complaint is that it is not long enough.
Other songs on the album that I listen to happily are the versions of John Barry‘s theme from Vendetta and Ennio Morricone‘s theme from Investigation Of A Citizen Above Suspicion (Indagine su un cittadino al di sopra di ogni sospetto, as it was originally titled). But irrespective of which covers on The Director’s Cut stand out for you, I can guarantee that it is a musical experience you will not confuse with any other.
I will be brief about Fantômas‘ third album, Delìrium Còrdia. Delìrium Còrdia has one writer/composer involved, namely Mike Patton. It is not a bad album, but it is pretty damned difficult to get into. The problem with Delìrium Còrdia is that it goes on and on for seemingly ever, with no delineation between different “songs” or themes, it is basically a continuous instrumental. The total running time of the album is seventy-four minutes and change, but somewhere in the neighbourhood of the last twenty minutes are nothing more than the sound of a turntable stylus stuck in the runout groove of a vinyl. Well, not quite. The last few seconds are the sound of a man (presumably Lombardo) beating drumsticks together and counting out to four at a rapid pace before the recording ends with the sound of the stylus sliding over the vinyl’s surface.
The fifty-four or so minutes of the album that are actually musical really need a warning label. One admonishing the listener not to listen to the disc whilst driving or operating heavy machinery. The soundscapes therein really do mess with the consciousness of the listener to that extent. The Wikipedia has it that Delìrium Còrdia can be seen as the soundtrack to surgery being performed without anesthesia. Some of the sounds on it fit with that theme, but the album just generally feels like a collection of freeform sounds without anything to invest oneself in. I can think of more annoying or unlistenable recordings, Abruptum‘s Obscuritatem Advoco Amplectere Me album for example. But Obscuritatem Advoco Amplectere Me has an identifiable structure to it. It is clearly meant to be a cross section of the mind of someone who is going out of their mind. Delìrium Còrdia feels more like an episode of what I will call Oh No, It’s Saturday here.
So far, the last Fantômas album to date has been Suspended Animation, a forty-three minute collection of songs themed around cartoon sounds and music, as well as obscure holidays that occur in the month of April. There have been reports that Patton is planning a fifth Fantômas album, but given that Suspended Animation was released seven years ago now, I am not holding my breath. Suspended Animation is not my favourite Fantômas album. I would put it somewhere above Delìrium Còrdia and below Fantômas, which is a noticeable step down from The Director’s Cut. Similar to Fantômas, the songs on Suspended Animation are named in a list format. The difference is that Suspended Animation‘s songs are named by dates that occurred in April of 2005 and the days that correspond to them (Friday, Saturday, Sunday, and so forth). (Fantômas‘ songs were Page 1, Page 2, Page 3, and so it goes.)
Unfortunately, these naming conventions also make it hard for me to tell people in words which songs stand out from the rest. Suspended Animation has a fairly high hit to miss ratio, but actual song names make it easier for piecemeal listeners (the kind I used to be and to some extent still am) to track down their favourites and add such to a playlist. But anyway, if you are unknowingly scouring the Internet or your local record store and looking for a Mike Patton-featuring album that might open a new door for you, then you could do far worse than Suspended Animation. But if you find Fantômas or The Director’s Cut at the same time, go for them instead.
Fantômas is one of many projects associated with Mike Patton. I will not kid you and say it is the best. Or the worst, for that matter. All of the projects that Patton has been a part of, from Faith No More to Maldoror, are very much a matter of individual taste or inclination. It is a bit like sex. Some people just do not mind performing it like they believe everyone else does (they listen primarily or exclusively to Faith No More, in other words). Whilst others do not mind having cigarettes put out on them or sand shoved into multiple openings (things like Maldoror or Adult Themes For Voice get regular play on their iPoods).
Regardless, having these four albums on my iPood has given me a much-appreciated option in terms of how to keep myself from going completely around the bend when I need something to keep the sine waves inside my skull moving in some sort of direction. So much so that I might even start seeking out the Tomahawk catalogue, or Patton solo albums other than the Crank: High Voltage soundtrack. In order to give readers out there a miniscule chance of grokking what I am on about with the whole neurological sine waves bit, however, allow me to explain something about how music and I interact.
I do not believe that anyone will even act surprised when I say that the little recesses in my brain respond differently to different sounds. Although artists like Devo or Adam Ant can hardly be called obscure or unusual in nature, after many years of being subjected to one-note, one-pattern preprogrammed (or seemingly so) crap, my brain’s cells react with glee and delight when I hear something where I cannot predict everything that the “artists” will do up to three hours in advance. Things that are unusual and non-standard draw the best reactions from my consciousness, and Fantômas has this in spades. I have said it a thousand times already, but it is incredibly difficult to mistake anything that Fantômas has recorded for something that somebody else has recorded.
Fantômas also take some of the best band photos. You can see this fact in the photo attached to the paragraph above. Sure, their band photos are not as flat-out silly or ridiculous as some black metal band photos (Immortal, for instance). But whilst Osborne and Patton are just being their usual weirdo selves, Lombardo looks as if the list of places he would rather be is as tall as he is (based on the photo before this one, and taking into account that Patton is about 5’9″, that is probably not saying all that much). But the look on Dunn‘s face is really what makes the picture for me. He looks as if he is either about to make Hamburglar noises, or has just got a noseful of the proverbial giant cow’s bottom. Given that this Mike Patton’s project, the likelihood that he told everyone in this photo to act this way is very high. Oh, how I would have loved to have been able to watch the session that produced this photoresumé.
Anyway, if you have been patient enough to read this far, already grok what I am saying here, or feel motivated to find some Fantômas music so you can see what I am on about (here and here are good places to start), then thank you for reading.