Between sampling his films on the first Mr. Bungle record and covering Angelo Badalamenti’s incredible main theme from Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me on his 2001 album with Fantômas, Mike Patton has become well known for his admiration of legendary experimental filmmaker David Lynch. The two are very much kindred spirits, shitting all over the rules of their respective medium and achieving an impressive level of popular acclaim despite bringing to life their uncompromising creative vision in a way that resists the analysis of a mainstream audience. Like the works of Lynch, Bungle’s albums have many surface-level oddities and idiosyncrasies that draw you in and make you curious to digest their more enigmatic qualities and themes, and like Lynch, Patton is a big believer that his work should speak for itself. On Mr. Bungle’s 1995 self-produced sophomore album Disco Volante, they deliver a record which led AllMusic to write, “Mr. Bungle is the musical equivalent of a David Lynch movie,” and proved beyond a shadow of a doubt that the pestiferous pricks who wrote Bloody Mary and The Girls of Porn could, in fact, grow up.
On their debut, Bungle constructed a pristine prog carnival that jumped from one twisted vignette to the next like a nightmare horror theater. By comparison, Disco Volante is more like a speed-freak Halloween party, largely abandoning lyrics and embracing kooky jazz and easy listening music to create a dark, campy vibe that somehow bore little resemblance to the dark, campy vibe of their previous work. Though the album’s title (which translates to “flying saucer”) came from the yacht in the James Bond film Thunderball, it also shares its name with an early 1950’s Italian sports car that was once described on an episode of Top Gear as “striking, intelligent, and unusual,” which also perfectly describes this record’s arrangements and performances. Indeed, many of these compositions sound so painstakingly plotted and structured that it leaves one wondering where on Earth they found the patience, let alone the inspiration. According to Trevor Dunn’s website, his time playing “jazz” in “restaurants” while Patton was busy with Faith No More inspired him to bring his upright bass to Bungle’s jam sessions, which opened the door for the band to go in a much different direction from the ska and funk metal of their first album. The result was a ton of wild experimentation, with Bungle taking inspiration from Arabic music, electronic music, and space age pop, and Patton was even able to bring influence from his favorite film soundtracks, as well as the Argentinian tango records he’d recently become obsessed with. The album’s rough aesthetic is probably owed to the fact that it was self-produced, and though the songs are well mixed, they do have a dank, grainy feel that goes well with the album cover. The layout and design of the CD sleeve was created in part by Mr. Neil Hamburger himself, Gregg Turkington, who has opened for Mr. Bungle many times and is currently signed to Ipecac Recordings (legend has it that the band once refused to perform Girls of Porn for an audience who booed his standup). On Disco Volante, Bungle deconstructed their sound, and in their attempt to put the pieces back together, they ended up with a boundary-demolishing record that was somehow even weirder than their debut.
The album kicks off with arguably its least representative track, Trevor Dunn’s no-wave opus Everyone I Went To High School With Is Dead. Though Dunn’s lyrics read like an elegant poem about his feelings of disconnection from his old schoolmates, it sounds like the band is chanting them in unison like a demonic cult as the bass groans and growls atop the Melvins-esque drums:
“My yearbook keeps me informed/
My yearbook keeps me in line/
It’s an obituary/
Gives me a concept of time/
We’ve graduated and grown/
From a real world once our own/
Yet we have proven them wrong/
By dropping off all along”
Sandwiched between the verses are thick slabs of savage noise, squealing blasts of feedback and electronic sound effects that add up to easily the most off-putting opener in Bungle’s entire discography, demos included. Like season 1 of Twin Peaks, a show the entire band were avid fans of, this album sticks its most brutal moments right at the beginning and lets the intrigue play out from there. Though the album version is relatively short, live performances were known to feature noise improvisations that could stretch its runtime to a punishing 20 minutes. If Bungle were anything, they were a band who were not afraid to go there, even if “there” was not a place that general audiences or their big-name label particularly wanted them to go.
The next track, Chemical Marriage, opens with some watery organs and jazzy drums, as well as Patton’s whispered scatting. The non-lyrical vocals on this record are the most experimental Patton had attempted thus far, and he’d use this skill down the road to add his personal brand of madness to John Zorn’s compositions on their Moonchild Trio recordings. Ghostly falsettos, multi-tracked babbling, and the deep “muh-muh-muh-muh” hook are all piled on top of each other as extra pieces of percussion accentuate the jazz groove, and the song switches back and forth between booming drums and a gentle swing. The anxiety-inducing breakdown leads straight into a brief organ solo before returning to the main riff and ending with a big finish, followed by a discombobulating series of cartoon sound effects. This track is a great way to introduce some of the more recurring musical themes and motifs the album brings, and it all really is as crazy as it sounds.
The third song is by far one of my favorite Bungle compositions of all time, Carry Stress In The Jaw, the first half of which is a dizzying tornado of jazz and death metal. The brief intro features the bass and saxophone playing the same complex melody in sync before sliding quickly into subtle, speedy drums and chilly synth chords. Dunn is going nuts on his upright bass as Patton scats gently over Danny Heifetz’s dextrous snare and cymbal work, getting slightly louder as Trey Spruance’s tremolo’d chords splash over the hits of electric bass and quick hi-hats. Patton shows incredible skill as he hits a sustained belt that gradually becomes a goblinlike screech, and the throttling death metal section is introduced by a wild free jazz sax solo. All of this happens in the first minute and a half of this nine-minute song, by the way. Bungle may have been a bunch of glue-sniffing metalhead jokesters, but their Easter Bunny days were behind them, and they did not come to fuck around this time. With a grizzly scream from Patton, the song blasts off into breakneck riffs and drums, collapsing into chaos a short time later as Patton hacks and grunts in the background. This begets my favorite part of the song, and one of my favorite moments in the entire Mr. Bungle discography. Accompanied by no percussion except a lone kick drum, an odd, stilted guitar riff plays in the background as Patton jazzily sings paraphrased sections from the Edgar Allan Poe story “Bernice” through clenched teeth, with the bass mirroring his melodies. As the section goes along, the drums come back in, matching the rhythm and cadence of Patton and the bass instead of playing a steady beat. All three slowly intensify, building and building the tension until suddenly, Patton unleashes the longest, most fearsome and unearthly shriek of any Bungle track, and the band explodes into rollicking hard rock. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve rewound this track just to hear this one part again, it’s fucking incredible, and live performances have yielded shrieks from Patton that are arguably even more impressive. The band transition back into the main part of the song, and when it comes time for Patton to hit the long, sustained note, you can actually hear him hitting himself repeatedly in the throat, a vocal technique I’ve only ever heard Tom Kenny use when performing the iconic SpongeBob SquarePants laugh. The song then transitions into its second half, often called “The Secret Song,” which is a dark and silly take on easy listening jazz with bass provided by none other than Mike Patton himself. Apparently, this song was recorded without the knowledge of Trevor Dunn, who, upon discovering it, recorded his own vocals over the instrumental parts (something Patton apparently pretended to be mad about once he heard it). Dunn spouts lyrics where he laments “They kicked me out of the band!” and “I didn’t get to play on it at all!” in a hilarious, wheezy old man voice. As far as Patton’s vocals, he can be heard imitating an absent horn section, scatting the melodies in a gravelly bleat that makes him sound increasingly like one of the more sinister and mischievous characters from the Muppets. He also provides more spooky falsettos and even rhythmic laughter during the more swingin’ sections, and the clean guitar riffs and old school keys make this sound like the theme song to a 60’s spy comedy. One of the catchiest, most memorable, and most gratifying songs on the album, Carry Stress In The Jaw is an obvious pick for one of the album’s best tracks, and one of the band’s best tracks in general, even if it is technically two different songs. To me, this is Mr. Bungle at the height of their raw, chaotic power, and every member gives one of the best performances of their career.
Electronic and Arabic music collide in dance rock hell on the inspired fourth track, Desert Search For Techno Allah. Considering the fact that critics were tripping over themselves to praise bands like Radiohead for combining rock with experimental and electronic music 2–5 years down the line, I daresay this song was somewhat ahead of its time, with its electronic buzzing atop psychedelic jazz drums like Silver Apples making tracks for the dance floor. There’s sections of baseball stadium organ playing over rapid bongos, haunting and bombastic keyboard interludes with no percussion,
and Patton’s repetition of the refrain:
“Qiyamat, qitamat a tawil/
Qiyamat, qiy insan al kamel”
I am told these phrases roughly translate to, “The great resurrection of the beginning, the great resurrection of the perfect man,” and were likely inspired by a book by Peter Lamborn Wilson called Scandal-Essays in Islamic Heresy. This song’s use of electronic synths over live drumming reminds me a bit of Refused’s 1998 interlude track Bruitist Pome #5, but the vibe is much darker and the songwriting more fleshed out. The last minute or so is an outro that features a repeated synth line and faint guitars in the background, building on this head-bobbing groove with some bongo polyrhythms as electronic noise starts going wild in the forefront, slowly introducing more instruments and prominent guitars until everything starts fading out. As an appropriation and/or bastardization of the music of another culture, it’s a fairly tasteful and exciting one, keeping things engaging and groovy through its many musical phases.
If the track Love Is A Fist from Bungle’s first album was a turn-off for you, you’ll be happy to know that the next track, Violenza Domestica, features arguably even darker lyrics which are thankfully all in Italian. Eerily, the track begins with the sound of a knife being sharpened, and ends with lyrics that roughly translate to, “Teeth cannot say anything without the tongue, because your language is mine.” Like David Lynch, Mike Patton’s writing process starts with a vivid visual of a character or scenario which becomes the seed of an idea to extrapolate on, and this can sometimes (in Lynch’s case, often) involve graphic violence. Lynch is an artist who, with enough analysis, almost always leaves a breadcrumb trail that leads to the ultimate point of his artistic choices. Though his harshest critics call his use of violence gratuitous, Lynch’s themes and even some major plot details can go over the viewer’s head upon the first, third, or even seventh viewing. While I think sometimes Patton tends to follow in the footsteps of his metal contemporaries and write about violence because it’s just generally a compelling thing to write about, or to make the audience uncomfortable, this is a much more nuanced attempt at portraying a gruesome, abusive character. Obviously this is just a 5-minute song, so it’s not gonna be as deep as a feature length film, especially considering that Mr. Bungle and Disco Volante are albums that seem designed to agitate and disorient the listener, but I do have to give the band more credit this time around for being so cinematic. The intro features eerie, plucked guitars and some creepy clanging and banging, after which we get a brief tango section that transitions into descending piano and accordion, and then into a simple drum beat with keyboard riffs, some ethereal synths, and organ leads all layered on top of each other. After some squealing guitar, Patton starts singing like an old, gravel-voiced Italian crooner, and the last minute or so features more tango, more spoken word, and more clanging, as well as a brief guitar freakout in the last moments. As a piece of art that’s meant to be reflective of a particularly despicable kind of man, it’s certainly much more thought-out and mature than Love Is A Fist.
In a nod to their namesake, the next track Bungle deliver is After School Special, which opens with some subtle, horror movie organs, accompanied by one of the album’s funnier verses:
“My mom is better than/
Your mom and your dad too/
She knows nutrition well/
That’s why I’m trim and lean/
Because she cooks, she cleans/
She lies, she says/
Patton’s singing is odd on this one, with a kind of childlike expressiveness that befits the character of the narrator, and he also adds some growled and wailed background vocals. There’s a short tango section, and after about a minute and a half there’s an extremely creepy outro featuring nothing but this pitch-shifted voice and a bunch of ambient room noise. There’s not a lot to say about this one since it’s so short, but like this album’s best tracks, it’s eerie while remaining catchy and fun.
Next is another relatively short track, Phlegmatics, a “rock” song that’s built on a driving punk drumbeat but features avant-jazz guitar/vocal melodies and a very Tom Waits woodwind section. The bass (when it’s not playing jazz chords in the more abstract parts) is particularly sludgy, and the opening section is a dissonant hard rock nightmare. This track has a puzzling, almost suitelike structure, shifting from one oddity to the next, even containing a touch of squeaky horns before exploding into an outro that burns out fairly quickly. Again, there’s not much to say other than the energy is great, each individual section is solid, and it’s another interesting detour in an album almost exclusively populated by interesting detours.
Many of this album’s songs contain wordless vocals, but only one has a wordless title, the wacky and fast-paced Ma Meeshka Mow Skwoz. One of the more popular songs from this album, the “lyrics” to this track were all pre-planned by Mike Patton, and pictures of his handwritten notes can be found online for proof. A disorienting and chaotic blitz of prog jazz, this track boasts one of Bungle’s catchiest horn lines ever, as well as many other nimble melodies and even some speedy licks from Trey Spruance that are thick with the dust of surf rock and Roy Clark-era rock n roll guitar heroism. Trevor Dunn professes that, contrary to popular belief, the band weren’t actually big Frank Zappa fans (though they tried unsuccessfully to get him to produce their debut record), but the xylophone and glockenspiel on this track certainly evokes his distinctive style, almost sounding like something that could have come off one of his more coffee-fueled 70’s records. Meanwhile, Patton can be heard growling and gurgling impishly, scatting slyly over upright bass, and overdubbing vocal layers as he sings gaily along with the horns. The song’s chilling organ intro suddenly breaks into psychedelic keys and bongo rhythms before the main riff comes in, and there’s lots of cartoon sound effects that make this song worthy of the label that released it. This is one of the most exciting and manic moments on the record, and the ending has a hilarious fake-out fade-out that comes back in very suddenly with Patton’s repeated, frightened shouting driving the song towards it final conclusion.
The next track is one of the longest and most experimental songs Mr. Bungle ever released, The Bends, in which Patton dabbles in the strange, abstract genre of musique concréte, a style which heavily utilizes tape loops and manipulation of raw audio. Mr. Bungle’s discography is stacked with some of the most unusual music ever released on a mainstream label, but this is their Revolution #9, a wonderfully strange collage which makes for easily the record’s most out-there moment. After the grimy, humming synths of the opening section, Man Overboard, we get a section called The Drowning Flute, during which buzzy, lo-fi synths and percussion are the undercurrent for Patton’s echoey singing, along with some eerie flute melodies. Patton croons goofily, “You’ve got the bends!” as the section fades out. This leads into Aqua Swing, where odd, squeaky synths and jazz keyboards play out a solo over swing drums and stand-up bass, ending with a harsh blast of noise. We then get Follow the Bubbles, which opens with descending keys and bubble sounds that lead into creaky door samples. The sound of Patton breathing much too close to the microphone introduces Duet For Guitar and Oxygen Tank, which marches in with beeping before marching right out into the next section, Nerve Damage, which sounds like the soundtrack to a sci-fi B-movie from the 50’s. After that is Screaming Bends, which features squeaking, rustling, and some dramatic pianos over a drum machine, followed by Panic in Blue, which sounds like a horror movie right at the moment when the villain is about to attack. In Love on the Event Horizon, Patton sing falsettos and whispers “the bends” over creepy pianos and squelching synths, with a touch of Spanish guitar in the latter half. We finally get the chilling and ambient last section, Re-Entry, which honestly sounds a bit like David Lynch’s soundscapes from films like Erasherhead and gradually builds to a noisy and sudden end. This song manages to keep the surprises coming and not fade into the background, despite it being one of the more subdued tracks, and it’s amazing to hear such a daring track from a band who was probably being pressured to start making some hits, a pressure to which they never caved.
The next track is Backstrokin’, a song which almost sounds like what would happen if Mr. Bungle were commissioned to do a Bond theme. The song swings with mysterious synths and cleanly picked guitar, and the second half is as swanky as it is eerie, with cinematic pianos and electronic noise fighting for attention before the song cuts out completely. There’s a brief outro with some wah guitar, over which Patton says, “Fartin’, pissin’, strokin’ my fuckin’ dick,” which may have been a juvenile joke in 1995, but in 2020 it sounds like something I can imagine many popular online accounts tweeting to much revelry. This song isn’t necessarily a highlight for me, but by no means is it bad and it fits in perfectly with the rest of the bullshit on this insane record.
The penultimate track and only single, Platypus, was actually written long before many of these songs, and was somewhat reworked and built on so that it fit with the aesthetic of the album, and is also literally about the platypus. There’s a lot of fairly straightforward rock and jazz on this track, and though again, Zappa was not really an influence, the woodwinds remind me strongly of his album Weasels Ripped My Flesh. Patton (or whoever) can be heard saying, “Ornithorhynchus anatinus, platypus” in a voice that sounds like fucking Meatwad from Aqua Teen Hunger Force, and Patton goes on to drop some platypus knowledge:
“The platypus has the brain of a dolphin/
And can be seen driving a forklift in his habitat of kelp/
He is the larva of the flatworm/
And has the ability to regenerate after injury”
The bass is particularly rubbery and prominent on this track, and some of it even sounds like it could be played in “restaurants” to a captivated audience whose dinner is growing colder by the minute. During the quiet breakdown, the bass is playing a really interesting line with lots of harmonics as Patton narrates morbidly. In some moments, it’s the closest thing this album offers to Bungle’s old sound, but laced with jazz and featuring some extremely diverse vocals. After a heavy metal outro, the song comes to a close with more Meatwad voice, more weird mouth sound effects, and a random bit of guitar noodling.
The final song is Merry Go Bye Bye, which starts out as a very rinky-dink pop song that transitions into noise rock and death metal without warning, with Patton going from crooning to growling in a moment that comes close to evoking Raging Wrath. There’s a section of what sounds like heavily manipulated and looped vocals, a long section of electronic noise, and even more death metal as Patton screams and growls until it fades into some heavenly synths and static sounds. Patton calls out over the airy, Badalamentian soundscape:
“We reached for an outside point of view/
But it’s out of touch with me and you/
I feel I’m walking into suicide/
And you’ll be right there by my side/
To beam my message into space as I die”
This section suddenly turns into a country-influenced hard rock outro, with big rock guitar chords and Patton belting like he did on King for a Day, and after a brief silence, we get the hidden track, a demo-quality song called Noises. You’d think a track with such a title on such an album would be some harsh, aggressive noise music, but it’s actually a fairly lowkey jam with some very silly drum improvisations that you can hear someone laughing about in the background. Eventually it devolves into what almost sounds like the drum kit being thrown around the room, and after a cry of “It’s all on tape!” things finally ramp up, with hit after hit of cymbals as one of the members cries “FUCK SHIT FUCK SHIT FUCK SHIT” over top. This “song” is essentially just the band goofing around in the studio, but in a way it’s an interesting contrast to the unbelievably well-rehearsed performances of the album’s complicated compositions.
Disco Volante is one of the weirdest albums I’ve ever heard in my life, a list which will surely grow exponentially as I continue with this project. In a landscape where alt rock was burning itself out in the mainstream and opening the door for a new wave of sunshiny, danceable pop, Mr. Bungle dove headfirst into the muck and emerged like majestic dolphins, shooting slime from their blowholes. They swung hard and stuck the landing, making an album that was 100% Bungle and 0% commercial, and they didn’t give a fuck what anyone thought of it. They made an album that was at once playful and frightening, goofy and creepy, complex and catchy, and their instincts never led them astray. While this album does take a while to digest, and it may shock and disgust a huge quantity of music listeners, it’s undeniably their boldest statement, and to this day it stands as one of the more memorable and enduring entry in Mike Patton’s catalog.
I give Mr. Bungle’s Disco Volante a Lynchian 9/10
Best Songs: Carry Stress In The Jaw, Chemical Marriage, Ma Meeshka Mow Skwoz, Platypus