The Mike Patton Corner: Faith No More’s Angel Dust

“I been waitin’ for this one!” — Lizzo, Tempo ft. Missy Elliot

In a 2017 interview with Henry Rollins, Mike Patton detailed the events which led to him becoming the frontman for Dead Cross. The band had already played several shows and written and recorded most of an album with The Locust and Cattle Decapitation member Gabe Serbian as their singer, but after they parted ways with him, band drummer and longtime Mike Patton friend and collaborator Dave Lombardo (formerly of Slayer) approached him to see if he was interested in becoming the hardcore group’s vocalist. Patton, who had already expressed interest in releasing the album on his label, Ipecac Records, eventually agreed, separately writing and recording his own vocals and lyrics. In 2019, Dead Cross began recording their second album, which will presumably feature a much greater contribution from Mike Patton to the songwriting process. This news was nothing short of thrilling to me, because Patton was in an extremely similar situation when he became the singer for Faith No More, and their second album together was their highly influential and widely celebrated magnum opus, Angel Dust.

The Real Thing was a big commercial hit for Faith No More, but the landscape of popular music in 1992 was dramatically different from 1990. Nirvana’s meteoric rise had opened the floodgates of underground rock, and major labels were gobbling up hometown heroes left and right, giving a platform to Cobain-approved acts like Melvins, Meat Puppets, and Daniel Johnston, people they wouldn’t have touched with a ten-foot pole in the 80’s. So now that the chart-toppers are all dirty weirdo freaks, how do Faith No More proceed? Well, by getting dirtier, weirder, and freakier than most of their contemporaries were willing to become, resulting in a record that Kerrang! once called “The Most Influential Album Of All Time.” While that may not be entirely true, few albums had a bigger impact on popular rock music in the late 90’s and early-to-mid 2000’s than Angel Dust, putting it among the ranks of other groundbreaking records like Rage Against The Machine’s self-titled, Refused’s The Shape of Punk to Come, and yes, Nirvana’s Nevermind. Try as Faith No More might to deny their influence on the hated genre of nu-metal, the growled rap verses of Midlife Crisis laid the groundwork for the vocals on Korn’s hit records, the dramatic piano riff and thunderous groove of Everything’s Ruined sounds like proto-Linkin Park, and a direct line can be drawn between Patton’s freakish non-lyrical vocals on tracks like Kindergarten or Crack Hitler and Disturbed’s iconic hook, “OHH WAH-AH-AH-AH!” Like Nirvana would do a year later, Faith No More followed their instincts and put out a defiantly uncommercial masterpiece to follow up their biggest hit, which sent reverberations through rock music that can still be felt today, as nu-metal has begun working its way back into pop through artists like Grimes, Poppy, and Rina Sawayama.

Not a second of time is wasted on this album, starting from the thrilling first moments of Land of Sunshine. The track almost immediately explodes into chugged guitars and ice cold synths, backed by a heavy drum groove and tumbling slap bass line. Their previous album opener, From Out Of Nowhere, looked cartoonish by comparison. Clearly this was the beginning of something very different, and musically Land of Sunshine feels like falling down a bottomless pit, especially during the descending keyboard riffs and demonic choir of laughter during the chorus. The lyrics were famously inspired by a sleep deprivation experiment Patton was trying, featuring many direct quotes from fortune cookies and late night ads for Scientology. The first verse is packed with vague promises of a brighter future:

“You have a winning way, so keep it!”

“You are an angel headed for a land of sunshine/

And fortune is smiling upon you!”

Patton bellows some of these lyrics in his deep, TV announcer voice, adding character to the song’s critique of predatory capitalist phoniness. Ultimately it’s the second verse that delves into the song’s main theme of the downtrodden being taken advantage of, and Patton is spouting lines taken directly from Scientologist personality tests:

“Does emotional music have quite an effect on you?”

“Do you often sing or whistle just for fun?”

Amid a sea of his own cackling, Patton belts the chorus:

“Does life seem worthwhile to you?”

The production on this album has much more in common with old school heavy metal than other popular rock records of the time, sacrificing crispness for blunt heaviness and giving the album a unique, grimy vibe. The guitars sound fatter, the drums more cavernous, and even though some of the vocals blur into the rest of the band, the performance and personality shine through, and the music often converges seamlessly into a relentless sonic sledgehammer. This album also features more guitar solos, which tend to resemble Pink Floyd more than Metallica, forgoing intense shredding for memorable compositions. The song concludes with a definitive crash, like a cinderblock dropped from a rooftop, cementing it (no pun intended) as one of the band’s best openers by far.

The next track is Caffeine, written during the same sleep experiment as the previous track. The aggressive beat pounds away like it’s driving a railroad spike as Patton shouts cryptic lyrics that, much like my prose in this review, contain vague references to construction work. One of my favorite things about Mike Patton is his ability to change his voice and singing style several times throughout the course of a song, and in the verses alone he can be heard using a shouted hardcore delivery, a grizzly death growl, and a malevolent belt. After two verses, the track dissolves into a quieter passage where Patton can be heard whispering non-sequiturs as the music slowly ramps up, eventually exploding into a short but extremely loud section that features Patton’s bone-chilling shriek of “I’M FUCKING YOUUUUU!” Where the tracks on The Real Thing were structured very traditionally, sometimes to a fault, tracks like Caffeine are built like brick houses with extra little rooms that each have an exact and necessary purpose. This track is dynamic, fascinating, and it rocks fucking hard, like many of Faith No More’s greatest songs.

The next track and lead single, Midlife Crisis, saw somewhat less success than Epic (even after an exceptional performance on Leno), but has since become a fan favorite and always makes the crowd go apeshit at Faith No More shows. With an irresistible groove built around a sample of Simon and Garfunkel’s Cecilia of all things, Midlife Crisis does share several similarities with Epic. Both have simple bass lines, rapped verses, and rather obtuse lyrical content, and much like Epic it’s definitely one of the album’s funner tracks. The band have talked in interviews about how the lyrics were inspired in part by Madonna, and the vapid and self-obsessed nature of celebrity:

“You’re perfect, yes, it’s true/

But without me, you’re only you/

Your menstruating heart/

It ain’t bleeding enough for two”

The theme of self-obsession probably plays into the lyrics of the verses as well, which are filled with what are almost definitely abstract masturbation references:

“Go on and wring my neck/

Like when a rag gets wet/

A little discipline/

For my pet genius”

Not exactly subtle. This song hit number one on the modern rock tracks chart, no doubt due to its catchy chorus and danceable beat, but there was something really innovative going on in the track as well. Instead of fusing rap and rock in a way that emphasizes the most commercial elements of both genres, the band puts a unique spin on the blend of styles, serving up big riffs and hooks but also sampling the Beastie Boys’ Car Thief during the glorious bridge.

Keyboardist Roddy Bottum, who chose the album’s title, did so because he considered the elegant name for the extremely fucked up drug to be emblematic of the band’s knack for combining the beautiful with the gruesome. On the track RV, the beautiful and the gruesome waltz off the edge of a cliff, hand in unlovable hand. Patton’s grumbling narrator is a middle aged deadbeat dad, whose rambling in the verses is sometimes barely audible as he rants about being out of shape and how “nobody speaks English anymore.” When Patton sings on this track, it’s with the greasy and melodramatic quality of a wannabe lounge lizard at least twice his age, and the second chorus sums up the emotions of the song perfectly:

“I hate you/

Talking to myself/

You don’t feel it after a while/

You take a beating”

This is the first time on the album the guitars could be described as pretty, but Roddy Bottum’s tinkling piano is the song’s lead instrument, and he brings some epic gospel-sounding organ during the bridge as Patton’s narrator barks dejectedly about his own demise. The song’s final piece of dark humor ties the themes of generational neglect together masterfully, as Patton muses:

“I think it’s time I had a talk with my kids/

I’ll just tell em what my daddy told me/

You ain’t never gonna amount to nothin’”

The heavy metal returns on Smaller and Smaller, another cryptic and oddly structured track whose lyrics could be interpreted as being about a revolution for the exploited working class:

“Drought makes the workers dream/

Muscles and fields of green/

Shovel the last few crumbs/

Of generosity/

Open heart, open mind/

Open mouth, open vein, drain/

Someday the rains will come/

My blistered hands tell me: Tomorrow tomorrow tomorrow!”

The song has been described by guitarist Jim Martin as “plodding,” but it makes great use of its tempo, allowing Patton to squeeze all the drama he can out of the Alice In Chains-like vocal harmonies. It’s hard not to get chills at Patton’s cries of “BIIIITE!” during the chorus, especially when he’s letting out his ferocious high-pitched shrieks. I have no idea what it is about Mike Patton’s throat that allows him to make these sounds, but hearing them on a mainstream rock album is pretty crazy, and seeing live videos of him using this technique is nothing short of mind-blowing. The song takes a detour into a mostly instrumental section that features a few vocal samples (including aboriginal chanting) before slamming back into metal riffage, with Jim Martin playing one of his best solos in the Faith No More catalog before segueing smoothly back into the chorus. From there, the song rides its momentum for a minute or so before crashing to its conclusion. It’s really a shame that they never perform this song, because to me it’s a serious highlight on the album.

The next sound we hear is the gentle piano intro to the album’s final single (besides their cover of Easy, which did not make it onto the original version of Angel Dust). Everything’s Ruined, which came complete with an extra low budget video and artwork on the single cover that features two rhinos having sex, is easily one of the best rock songs of the 90’s and possibly of all time. I cannot sing this song’s praises enough, to me it’s perfect and arguably the best track on the album. Every guitar riff is majestic and muscly, the bass line and piano riff is addicting, the drum groove is undeniable, and Patton’s performance is as hilarious as it is diverse. There’s not a single moment of this song where the band isn’t doing something spectacular, and Patton’s harmonies are at their most interesting. On this track, Patton’s belting and rapping build up to the soaring chorus and epic bridge, while underneath him every other member is firing on all pistons. The most and perhaps only mainstream accolade this song has received in retrospect was to be placed at number 74 on Q Magazine’s Top 100 Greatest Guitar Tracks Ever list, but in my opinion, Everything’s Ruined should be considered amongst the all time rock singles of its era and as an incredible achievement in songwriting, even if the vague lyrics sound like a pointed jab at an unclear target. Future Mike Patton collaborator Buzz Osborne of Melvins fame is notorious for writing songs with utter nonsense lyrics, shoving syllables together and sometimes making up words in the process. Though Patton’s nonsensical jabbering on many a Fantômas track is legendary, I’ve not known him to go for total abstract syllablization when writing actual lyrics, but songs like this and Caffeine show he’s never one to sacrifice something that sounds great just for a silly thing like scrutability. Clarity of purpose is for satire, not songwriting.

Being a bunch of cheeky bastards, the band chose to follow their single with one of their all time most terrifying and savage compositions, the nightmarish Malpractice. I can’t even describe how blown away I was when I first heard this track, it’s like A Day In The Life hurtling through a k-hole at subsonic speeds. With lyrics about surgery gone wrong, Patton growls and sneers atop the ever-evolving instrumental, which features factory floor drums and squeals of feedback, as well as a Hitchcockian string sample in the second half. During the chorus, Patton showcases some of the most inhuman screams in Faith No More’s catalog, which contrast harshly with the gentle vocals and plinky toy piano melodies of the bridge, weightlessly floating above the ground as a single, chugged power chord keeps the rhythm like a rusty carousel. On an album packed with some of the most original heavy metal of the 90’s, Malpractice is a shocking listen to this very day and another consistently underrated work of mad genius.

On the next track, Faith No More take it back to Kindergarten, and Patton can be heard rapping about being in a state of arrested development:

“Return to my own vomit like a dog/

Rhymes and giggles muffle the dialogue/

Carve my initials in a tree, I will never leave/

Maybe one day I’ll be royalty”

One of my problems with The Real Thing was that I think other Faith No More projects do a much better job of adding something to each song to make it stand out in the tracklist. This track has several, including a catchy guitar riff that utilizes lots of harmonics, a really nice heavy metal bass solo, and sections of Patton’s distorted vocals where he starts talking in a rapid auctioneer voice, which grows in intensity as it devolves into non-verbal blithering. Patton comes back with more vigor on the third verse, and the outro features heavy metal guitar harmonies that, in my opinion, improve on what can be heard in Epic. Patton cries “Held back again!” as he rides the beat all the way to the end.

Another one of my favorite things about Mike Patton is that he is reportedly an excellent person to collaborate with, and enthusiastically embraces the ideas of his bandmates. Where most metal singers are preoccupied with maintaining a masculine, heteronormative public image, Patton was always eager to have fun with his music and take on any character the lyrics required. So, when keyboardist Roddy Bottum (who came out as gay the year Angel Dust was released) came to the band having written a song called Be Aggressive all about sucking dick, Patton was more than happy to perform (pun intended). With organs that bleed gospel in one moment and Phantom of the Opera in the next, the band break into one of the album’s danciest grooves as Patton shouts Bottum’s lyrics about swallowing and submitting with total conviction (it’s at this point that I choose to bring up, for no reason, that Roddy Bottum would go on the compose the score for all three of Nickelodeon’s TV movies based on the popular YouTube character Fred Figglehorn). The chorus appropriates the popular “be aggressive” cheerleader chant, recorded by what sounds like an actual cheer squad (complete with handclaps that do much for the danceability of the rhythm), and after a bridge that features a Mike Patton choir harmonizing the line “I swallowwwww,” we get the record’s most frantic and energetic guitar solo. Though there’s not any odd structures or avant-garde elements to this song, it’s one of Faith No More’s funnest and funniest songs, and has since become a concert staple.

One of the poppiest and most personal songs on the album is the second single, A Small Victory. Said Patton of the lyrics’ meaning:

“Its kind of about, well my dad was a coach, so I grew up and I always wanted to win. And well, I found out that I just can’t win every game…darn it.”

Patton describes the tragedy and anxiety of a parent forcing you to compete with poetry and vulnerability not often found in heavy metal:

“A cracking portrait/

The fondling of the trophies/

The null of losing/

Can you afford that luxury?”

The synths on this track (allegedly pan flute-inspired) provide one of the brighter and catchier hooks, harmonizing beautifully with the guitar. The band makes great use of sound effects which duel with the multi-phased guitar solo, and Patton in the chorus is throwing a minor tantrum over his defeat, lamenting:

“It shouldn’t bother me, no/

It shouldn’t, but it does!”

Warner must have breathed a huge sigh of relief when they heard this song because of its relatively tame subject matter and crossover appeal, which drove it to #11 on the modern rock charts. With this song’s sweet, catchy melodies that still maintain a hard rock edge, Faith No More proved they were not just phenomenal musicians, but still a worthwhile investment, even as their sound strayed towards the bizarre.

Speaking of bizarre, the album continues with the nightmare funk of drug dealer anthem Crack Hitler. With James Bond keyboards that led the band to give the track the tentative title “Action Adventure,” the song is written from the perspective of a dealer the band had talked to, who compared himself to the infamous German chancellor, something they found hilarious and inspiring enough to write a song around. The guitar features some Hendrixian wah, with deadnotes and funk riffs playing backseat to the hard-hitting slaps and pops of the bass. Despite the driving hard rock beat, the chorus melody and harmonies sound like they could have been pulled straight off an Earth, Wind, and Fire record, and there are a few hard transitions into a stomping metal section that features a chanting chorus of “HEY!” that sounds like some kind of haunted soccer game. The outro features a brief bell melody that accentuates Patton’s gentle falsetto, before he starts spitting and waggling his tongue like comedian James Adomian doing his Tom Leykis impression. It’s the fastest and most energetic track on the album, which is fitting considering the lyrical themes of smoking so much crack you become a being of such pure, unhinged ego that you’d willingly compare yourself to Adolph Hitler.

The penultimate track is the colossal Jizzlobber, which is easily one of the album’s heaviest and most intense songs. Mike Patton has stated that it was written about his fear of going to jail, but Billy Gould has suggested was inspired a particular porn star. The lyrics could easily be interpreted as either, evoking the image of sex that is either unwanted or later regretted:

“My skin is a layer of soot/

I’m spending my days scrubbing/

I’m trying so hard to act like nothing happened/

I’m trying so hard to find that fresh, clean scent”

The opening synth chords stab at the air like the Psycho shower scene before being forced into the background by a growling, monolithic slab of guitar and bass. The riffs in the chorus turn jagged and angular, and Patton shrieks desperately over top of them:

“I hide the dirty minutes under my dirty mattress, and they are making me itch/

My time is spilt milk”

About halfway through the song, it transforms into a slower, sludgier affair with more complex guitar parts overdubbed on top of the heaviness. The riffs are hard and brutal enough to turn your ears as black and blue as the album cover, and Patton’s last moments are among his most chilling, crying out:

“I am what I’ve done/

I am what I’ve done/

I’m sorry/

I’m sorry/

I’m sorry”

The song stomps determinedly toward its conclusion, fading into a haunting pipe organ outro. If The Real Thing was an action movie, this album is a straight up horror film, climaxing with its most deeply upsetting scene before letting the credits roll so you can sit and absorb what you’ve just been put through.

In a fitting end to this cinematic album, the final track is an instrumental cover of the theme song from the classic 1969 film Midnight Cowboy. Bassist Billy Gould has said he went through a phase where he was constantly listening to a particular San Francisco radio station that played 50’s and 60’s easy listening music, and that the band’s decision to cover this song was born out of that obsession. Known for his love of 60’s music and film soundtracks, Mike Patton himself plays the melodica on this track, which is a waltz much like their previous album closer and features what I’m pretty sure is the only appearance of acoustic guitar on the record. If Jizzlobber was Faith No More blowing it out, this is them bringing it home, and you can practically see the audience getting up from their seats and voicing their mixed reactions to their equally confused friends. Credit for the catchiness of this tune has to go to composer John Barry, and like all good adaptations, this cover manages to put its own spin on the song while staying faithful to the spirit of the source material. After all, the movie’s themes of grief, despair, and regret tie in perfectly to the emotions explored all across Angel Dust. If you think about it, there’s no more fitting end to this challenging, weird album than with a weird, left-field cover that relates to the rest of the music purely contextually.

On Angel Dust, Faith No More deliver a true masterpiece that, even removed from the context of its indispensability to the evolution of rock music, delivers everything a classic album is supposed to have. Its tracklist is structured beautifully, its experiments are all successes, and its lyrical themes are timeless. The many hooks deliver so much serotonin-producing satisfaction that its many layers become a joy to uncover with repeated listens. It’s pop, it’s metal, and it’s art rock. It’s a black comedy and a midnight cult slasher flick. It’s the album that makes Faith No More’s legacy as one of the most important and groundbreaking bands of all time totally unquestionable.

I give Faith No More’s Angel Dust an angelic 10/10

Best Songs: Everything’s Ruined, Midlife Crisis, and basically the whole album

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