The Mike Patton Corner: FANTôMAS’s self-titled
During the slow demise of Faith No More, Mike Patton found himself artistically restless. By 1998, the band that had made him a global superstar was basically dead, and in addition to reconvening with Mr. Bungle to write new material (tune in next time for that one), he had also been recording a series of demos for avant-garde grindcore songs. Intending to form a supergroup, Patton sent these demos to three people: his longtime friend and Bungle bassist Trevor Dunn, fellow prolific alt rocker and formidable Melvins frontman Buzz “King Buzzo” Osborne, and Brazilian heavy metal band Sepultura’s drummer Igor Cavalera. The only one who declined was Cavalera, but he did pass the offer along to a man he thought would be perfect for the job, legendary Slayer drummer Dave Lombardo, who accepted. Taking their name from a popular character in French fiction, FANTôMAS was born, and started debuting their material to the public in a series of live shows.
The initial FANTôMAS shows were attended by several major label execs, who were very interested in this new project given the success of Faith No More. According to Patton, “…after the shows, they disappeared into the woodwork. There were [also] indies that were interested, but none I was interested in.” The response from the labels was pretty understandable; if Mr. Bungle had no commercial potential, I don’t even know what you could say about FANTôMAS’s 1999 self-titled debut. Grindcore, an intense fusion of hardcore punk and metal, had been around for many years by this point and certainly had an audience, but Patton’s interpretation was much more experimental than fans of the genre were used to. The compositions on this album take the blinding fury of grind and combine it with Patton’s particular brand of experimental wackiness to create a wholly original sound, and like many of Patton’s genre experiments, it’s more for the Pattonites than the purists. Mike Patton is a singular, unique artist with a wide range of interests, so whatever genre he dips his toes into is going to be infected by his irrepressible personality, sometimes to the displeasure of the pure grinders who could do without his ambient passages and unhinged singing style that incorporated scatting and beatboxing. Patton would eventually found Ipecac Recordings for the sole purpose of distributing his new record, and the label would go on to release albums by artists like legendary experimental hip-hop act Dälek, Death Grips drummer Zach Hill and his math rock band Hella, Dean Ween side project Moistboyz, and beloved stoner rock band Mondo Generator. The riffs on this album are aggressive and heavy, the songs defy traditional structure, and the entirely wordless vocals are as insane and mind-bending as any of Patton’s more experimental ventures, making this, in my opinion, the true spiritual successor to Adult Themes For Voice, with everything that made that album special amplified into an extreme metal masterwork.
Allegedly, the tracks on this album are meant to soundtrack a comic book (which may or may not exist), and are broken up into “pages” rather than songs. The opening track, Page 1 [6 Frames], is bookended by slap bass hits that synchronize with Patton’s growled and inhaled beatboxing. Most of the track is taken up by steady, suspenseful cymbal work from Lombardo, traveling psychedelically between the channels. The guitar comes roaring back along with the bass for a few triumphant riffs before ending on the same note it started with. Patton doesn’t pussyfoot around when establishing the tone of his projects in the opening track, and this song is a quintessential example.
Next is Page 2 [7 Frames], where we finally get a little thrash, followed by Patton vocally mimicking Lombardo’s cymbal taps. One of the signature parts of the band’s sound is Patton’s unique scatting, his exuberant screams of “yayayayayaya” and his falsetto “tiktiktiktiktik” is something he experiments with a lot on these albums. We then get a passage with Dunn playing some lonely, western-inspired bass notes to finish the track off. Even when writing hardcore metal, Patton’s eclectic influences manage to seep in, to great effect.
A personal favorite of mine is Page 3 [17 Frames], which opens with some spare blasts of drum and bass that seem almost rockabilly-inspired, between which Patton rocks some manic beatbox scatting that ramps up into some yayaya’s. After melting into a brief passage of whistling, the band thrashes a bit, rinse, repeat, before hilariously capping things off with three increasingly shrill screams, divided up by speedy drum fills. This song is a great example of this project at its weird and wild best, retaining the exploratory spirit of Adult Themes but channeling the ideas and energy into tight compositions.
One of the longest songs by far (almost four-and-a-half entire minutes) is Page 4 [11 Frames], which begins with a kind of ambient-horror sound collage featuring expressive drumming, some laughing samples (one of which I think is Vincent Price), and of course, screaming. Patton’s spooky falsetto then duels with Buzzo’s riffs, eventually breaking into more heavy, proggy thrash and scatting, and melting into another minimal, western-inspired piece complete with more samples and some Yamaha keyboard gunshot sound effects. One great thing about this album is that though many of the songs rely on the same aesthetics and basic compositional elements, the ideas never seem to run dry and the sound palate subtly expands throughout. This song demonstrates that perfectly.
Next is a track with really interesting percussion, Page 5 [7 Frames]. Patton’s scatting and deep backing vocals fit right in with driving bongos and the steady scrape of a güiro, something which can’t help but remind me of War’s classic track Low Rider (specifically Neil Cicierega’s track where he obnoxiously mashes it up with Faith No More’s Epic). A brief bit of screamy thrash closes out the short track, ushered in by a silly vocal/guitar chug-off. This one is definitely a highlight for me among the songs that clock in at under a minute, of which there are quite a few.
The menacing Page 6 [26 Frames] opens with a plodding chug, with bursts of loud screams and drums interspersed throughout. This eventually leads to a climactic thrash punk section with one of my favorite vocal refrains:
“YAYAYAYAYAYAYAYAYAYAYAYAYAYAYAYAYAYAYAYAYAYAYAYAYAYAYAYA *deep inhale*/
YAYAYAYAYAYAYAYAYAYAYAYAYAYAYAYAYAYAYAYAYAYAYAYAYAYAYAYA *deep inhale*”
Well, it sounds better than it reads.
Page 7 [6 Frames] sees Patton, as he often is in this album, vocally doubling the guitar riff, but it also features an a capella portion of him singing a vaguely eastern melody that reminds me of Mr. Bungle’s final album closer Goodbye Sober Day. Not to discount the artistic vision of this album, but anyone familiar with what Patton would do after this album could see these tracks as him “going to the gym,” in a manner of speaking, working out ideas that would become part of his signature sound down the road.
On Page 8 [9 Frames], we get some slightly more spaced out riffs, but mostly the haunting echo of what sounds like a wood block, accompanied by some Tom Waits-esque junkyard percussion, including more güiro. Most Patton projects are best listened to in their entirety, and doing so with this album involves a lot of songs like these, where intriguing sounds and ideas blaze by with barely time to process them. This type of listening experience is not for everyone, especially given how abrasive some of these ideas are, but in its own unique way, this album is as engaging as it is patience-testing.
Another exciting moment comes on Page 9 [11 Frames], where a steady, primal drumbeat is topped by Patton’s repetitive scat riffs. The vocals on this album are hysterical (in every sense of the word) when they match with the guitar and bass, but when they syncopate with the beat, that’s when some of these songs really come alive.
Page 10 [5 Frames] emphasizes heaviness at its start, sounds like it’s ramping up to an explosion, and then turns into almost a full minute of soft, tuneless falsetto that concludes with the sudden and loud sound of dishes shattering. Some of these ideas, like this one for example, end up sounding a bit like Pranzo Oltranzista, albeit in a more truncated form. It’s clear from tracks like these how ever-evolving Patton is as an artist, which is part of what makes him so interesting to me.
Page 11 [10 Frames] is another slower, groovier metal song with some killer riffs in the vein of Pantera and a couple falsetto sections. It’s nice for the band to pull back a bit on the speed and really let every instrument breathe, and Patton’s vocals are more fearsome, calling forward a bit to the edgy nu-metal he’d inspire.
Another favorite of mine is Page 12 [31 Frames], where Patton’s vocals are at their freakiest contrasted with the heaviness of the instrumental. There’s then a chilly keyboard passage with Patton wordlessly crooning in his sweetest falsetto, broken up by a bit of noise rock. It’s one of the more beautiful songs on the record, showing once again that the album has a signature sound while also showing a lot of versatility.
As with the next FANTôMAS album, track 13 is a short, untitled song with absolutely no content, 13 obviously being an unlucky number.
Page 14 [4 Frames] opens with Patton’s pterodactyl shrieks over some tremolo-picked black metal riffs, drums rumbling away in the background. This melts into some extremely minimal drumming, with intermittent, loud outbursts of drum and vocals. One could take a lot of these tracks as musical jokes of a sort, but to me they land pretty well, especially given how impressive the instrumental work is.
On Page 15 [22 Frames], the intro comes in slowly and quietly, the steady riff and drums accentuated by a great bassline. This all disappears in favor of Patton’s manic vocals trading off with some high-pitched, squeaking riffs that I think are utilizing pick-tapping. After a heavier section, the song slows gradually to a stop. Halfway through the album, the concept still has so much gas in the tank, and Patton is squeezing every incredible sound he can out of it.
Page 16 [11 Frames] opens with pure black metal, complete with tremolo riffs and blast beat, before dissolving into creepy ambience. More gun sound effects, and the black metal section repeats, all with Patton’s eccentric scats and insane shrieks to give it flavor. It’s a shame Patton doesn’t dabble more in the black metal genre, he seems to really have an ear for it, as well as a perfectly brutal vocal style.
On Page 17 [14 Frames], guitars ring out like an alarm, and ambient passages break up sections of speedy noise rock. This is loud-quiet-loud at its most extreme and potent.
At 5 minutes, Page 18 [20 Frames] stands as the longest song, and one of the eeriest. Ghoulish sound effects, creepy singing, and the triumphant return of Vincent Price make the intro a real spookfest, which then turns into heavy surf rock, complete with more odd vocals. Patton puts a delay effect on his shrieks, causing them to ring out in an alarm-like fashion similar to the guitar in the earlier track. There’s more falsettos, more thrashing and bashing and shrieking, and more percussive vocals, as well as some deadly blasts of chaotic feedback. This song takes a lot of ideas found in individual tracks and combines them to become arguably the album’s most representative song.
Page 19 [21 Frames] is divided into two main sections: a gentler, keyboard-driven opening, and an intense thrash conclusion with some killer riffs.
On the 30-second Page 20 [13 Frames], we get the band’s typical grinding sound, but with an interesting passage where Patton dabbles in throat singing. The deep, resonant note he hits is a unique moment on the album, and he pulls it off pretty spectacularly.
Page 21 [11 Frames] opens with another pretty sweet groove riff, but once the band busts into some thrash, Patton’s vocals start to drive the song with his refrain:
“MUHMUHMUHMUHMUHMUH MANA MANA MUHMUHMUHMUHMUHMUHMUHMUH MANA MANA MANA MUHMUHMUHMUHMUHMUHMUHMUH MANA MANA MANA PSHHHHH”
There are also some quirky sounds and instrumental moments that would go on the be refined into some of their next album’s most memorable passages.
Page 22 [7 Frames] opens with a tuneless, moaning guitar that ramps up with relentless drums before fizzling out. This leads into a section that contains what I believe is a sample of a frightened woman from what sounds like a very old film. This is mostly a dark ambient track, with all the creepy and hard-to-pin-down sound effects of the album’s other similar songs, but one striking thing about Patton’s take on ambient music is how he combines it with the driving energy of rock. This track is a good demonstration of the way he infuses any genre with his own brand of musical mayhem.
Page 23 [17 Frames] briefly cycles between spaced-out bursts of controlled noise-rock chaos and headbanging metal before burning out in an outro that features another film sample, all before even a minute has passed.
Page 24 [19 Frames] is a simple but effective use of Patton’s harsh falsetto countering the sparse guitar, and though it’s not hugely complex, it sort of gives the illusion through its creative use of silence and instrumental minimalism.
More grind opens Page 25 [34 Frames], followed by an almost stoner metal-like passage, and an epic drum fill to bring back the thrash. The song ends with about two seconds of whistling that sound ripped straight out of a 1950’s sitcom theme. It’s incredible what Patton manages to pack into the span of 40 seconds.
More eerie ambience and some screeching electronics make up the entirety of Page 26 [7 Frames], which segues seamlessly into Page 27 [15 Frames]. A single guitar note stabs out into the ether repeatedly before rollicking drums and mean-as-fuck bass come rolling in, almost like a deconstruction of a song by future Ipecac signees Daughters.
Page 28 [20 Frames] features some of the album’s most complex drumming, and like Page 18, incorporates a lot of this album’s recurring compositional elements, but in its own unique and twisted way.
A song I dearly love from this album is the penultimate track, Page 29 [39 Frames]. Bookended by mysterious guitar noise, Patton’s vocals are absolutely hilarious, with his expressive refrain:
“SHIA-GA-GA-GA-GA-GA PDDDLA POM PAAA”
There’a a rhythmic moment that reminds me a bit of the rock classic Great Balls of Fire, along with some more synchronized scream/hi-hat hits. Songs like these make me really curious as to what the demos for this album sounded like. Additionally, King Buzzo mentioned in an interview that the band had sheet music for reference when performing live, and though I’m almost musically illiterate, I’m equally curious as to what they looked like.
The final track is Page 30 [2 Frames], which dissolves into moaning ambience and feedback after about 10 seconds of chaotic thrash. It’s not the most climactic ending to this project, but it’s fitting in a way, considering how scattered and formless the rest of the album has been.
This album is not focused by any stretch of the imagination, but it dives so thoroughly into abject lunacy that it ends up being one of the most completely original and breathtakingly extreme projects ever to be solely composed by Mike Patton. FANTôMAS’s next album would prove a much more accessible and tuneful experience, but the ideas honed on this project were instrumental to making the band one of rock’s most unique and experimental supergroups. Patton circumvents the task of creating a tracklist with “flow” by making each track equally out-there and nonsensical, so the music homogenizes into 43 minutes of one blindingly intense, atmospherically cohesive, and boundary-pushing auditory assault after another. It’s bold, it’s loud, and it’s FANTastically dense with ideas.
I give FANTôMAS’s self-titled a screamin’ 8/10
Best Songs: Page 3, Page 6, Page 12, Page 18, Page 25, Page 29