The Mike Patton Corner: Mike Patton’s Adult Themes For Voice
In the beginning, God said, “Let there be light.” And in 1996, Mike Patton said, “FUCKFUCKFUCKFUCKFUCKFUCKFUCKFUCKFUCKFUCKFUCKFUCKFUCKFUCKFUCKFUCKFUCKFUCKFUCKFUCKFUCKFUCKFUCKFUCKFUCKFUCKFUCKFUCKFUCKFUCKFUCKFUCKFUCKFUCKFUCKFUCK.”
These days, with our Pitch Perfects and our Pentatonixes, it’s easy to lose sight of what a cappella music is and really should be: one man, alone in a hotel room, with subpar recording equipment, shrieking and screaming like he just nailed his dick to his leg. It’s no secret that Mike Patton is, in my opinion, perhaps the most talented male rock vocalist in history, a boundary-pushing jack of all trades whose clean, melodic vocals are equally as impressive as his earthshaking holler. For over 30 years, Patton has delivered consistently impressive performances, demonstrated abilities I thought beyond the capabilities of mere humans, and proven that no matter how hard he pushes his instrument, no matter how many times he shreds his throat, his voice remains all but invincible. So, when he makes an album that basically consists entirely of his own shouts, screams, and mouth noises, he’s one of the only singers from whom I would be inclined to listen to such a project. And that brings us to Mike Patton’s first solo album, and easily the weirdest piece of music I’ve ever written about, 1996’s Adult Themes For Voice, which was indeed recorded in various hotel rooms while Patton was on tour with Faith No More. Maybe I’m putting more effort into this review than Patton did into this album, but even though pure experimental noise isn’t usually my genre, I am at least going to try to give my honest thoughts on each and every one of this album’s 34 tracks.
One daunting question loomed over me as I prepared to review this album: How the hell am I going to listen to this shit at work? Even Disco Volante was tame enough for me to ring up customers to at a low volume, but this? How could I explain this? Luckily for me, this thing called COVID-19 came along (street name: Coronavirus), which gave me just enough quarantine time to bang out most of this review. Thank you, gross governmental negligence! Anyways, for better or worse, I truly cannot believe Mike Patton released this album. I definitely believe that he made it, but the fact that he chose to make it commercially available as his debut solo album is…nothing short of astonishing. Mr. Bungle’s first two records are un-commercial, certainly, but the songs at the very least had melodies and structure. The sounds which populate this record are ear-splitting, unnerving, and lack structure almost completely, and I just really feel bad for whoever was staying in the room next to him when he recorded this shit. The album was released on John Zorn’s label, because Warner sure wasn’t going to put it out, and you really have to admire the friendship between these men, because if my buddy told me he’d made an album and played THIS for me, I’d have said, “Mike…I don’t know if the world is ready for this.”
The album starts with a bang, quite literally, on Wuxiapian, which is as good a way to start this thing as any I suppose. There’s a bit of what I think might be beatboxing on this track, but I swear it sounds like he was pounding the crap out of his hotel dresser. The best thing I can say about this is that, as a musician who enjoys combining hip-hop with noise music, there’s some sample-worthy material here, and Patton’s distorted yelps and the overblown “percussion” actually become kind of groovy for a second before dropping out in favor of some dog-like whines. The second section contains a lot of squeaking, like a synthesizer with the pitch turned up to the point of unlistenability, and the track ends with about a minute of screaming that’s so distorted it sometimes briefly cuts out due to audio clipping. As an opener…I guess it couldn’t have done a better job setting the tone, and though I’m not completely in love with it as a piece of music, I really respect it.
The next track is “I Killed Him Like A Dog…And He Still Laughed”, which does indeed contain laughter as its main musical premise. Patton sounds absolutely insane as he forces out these creepy chortles which, again, are distorted due to his crappy microphone. It’s at this point that the aesthetic of the album starts to make itself clear, and you have to wonder, “Oh my god, am I only two tracks in?”
Next is Smog, where Patton can be heard layering some high whistles that hum eerily in a moment I could honestly hear serving as an interlude from Disco Volante. It’s no surprise that this album was conceived during roughly the same time period as The Bends, with Patton embracing a more lo-fi sound years before it would become trendy in the indie scene.
After that is The Man In The Lower Left Hand Corner Of The Photograph, which is actually a pretty interesting track. Patton makes a dynamic series of sound effects, performing his trademark shrieks and reaching into his lower register with some bassy bursts, the likes of which would eventually land him a featured spot on Björk’s experimental a cappella masterpiece Medülla. Patton can be heard sucking air through his teeth, rolling his tongue, and whispering nonsense, and it’s a bit more interesting on the production side as he loops his screams and adds a bit of panned beatboxing. Patton sampling his voice and playing the samples out with rapid repetition is a technique used all over this album, and makes for one of the more interesting production choices.
Next is a track called Robot Sex (Neon), which cycles back and forth between Patton mumbling like a gremlin and blowing out the microphone. Again, while it was a deliberate aesthetic choice to make this thing sound like it was recorded on a gaming headset, it does make some of what Patton is doing very hard to discern, and the ending even features what vaguely sounds like a hearty belch.
The track segues rather seamlessly into the next song, Screams Of The Asteroid, which makes use of some extremely unpleasant high-pitched frequencies that sound like a serious hardware problem. It’s at this point that the album starts to feel like the result of Patton making a $500 bet that he could break his microphone using only his voice, and tracks like this sound like he’s coming pretty close.
We then get a thrilling continuation with Robot Sex (B/W), a 17-second track which basically sees Patton looping his voice so rapidly that it either sounds like a woodpecker, or the machine gun sound effect from a 90’s video game. Musically and conceptually it doesn’t have a lot to do with the previous installment of Robot Sex, but you’d be hard pressed to find much in the way of a motif on this record anyway.
Patton serves up a truly disturbing soundscape on Porno Holocaust, delivering intense screams and throaty groans that are chopped up into an overwhelming barrage of sound. It’s nothing if not compelling, and the longer the song goes on the faster the cuts get until it becomes a relentless vocal assault. One of the things that made my Disco Volante review take so long to write was that it’s an extremely dense and complex album with a lot going on. It’s a full 12-course meal, and it took a while to digest even having already listened to it several times. This album, meanwhile, is kind of like an extremely huge box of assorted chocolates that are each filled with shit like wasabi and toothpaste. It’s meant to elicit revulsion, and that’s certainly what it achieves, but there’s also a fascination in the fact that someone would choose to do this on purpose, and that gives it a somewhat unique novelty. Believe it or not, I’ve found myself returning to this track; once you wrap your head around the insanity it actually becomes kind of fun.
We then get one of the album’s longer tracks, Inconsolable Widows In Search Of Distraction, which marks the return of Patton’s technique of hitting himself in the throat. He smacks himself so rapidly it almost sounds like an edit (and maybe it is) while wailing in this very high falsetto, and in the latter half of the track he layers many different takes on top of each other so that it becomes an ocean of caterwauling so vast that it starts to resemble a swarm of seagulls. I’m not gonna lie, I like this one a lot. It has a very clear concept and a genuine musical progression in an album where most of the songs purposely have neither.
Next is an extremely brief track (the album’s shortest) called “Hurry Up And Kill Me…I’m Cold”. Patton flaps his lips like a horse for the first half, and punctuates the second half with more high-pitched electronic buzzing. That’s it, that’s the whole track. It’s eight seconds long.
Following that is Man Alone In Steambath, where Patton sings in a low vocal fry that’s very reminiscent of Ol’ Dirty Bastard at the beginning of the track Goin’ Down, famously sampled by JPEGMAFIA. Underneath the vocals are what sounds like an aluminum can being crushed continuously for a full minute, and at about the halfway mark the vocals become so garbled by the production they start to sound like a toilet being flushed. Perhaps Patton actually did record this one while in the bath, because it definitely sounds like water is being splashed around at the end.
After that is a four-track odyssey, starting with Guinea Pig 1, which sounds like a piano being slowly dragged down a hallway, accompanied occasionally by shrieking blasts of lo-fi noise. On Guinea Pig 2, Patton has put some kind of weird warble effect on his voice and he screams repeatedly through what sounds like a megaphone, which turns his voice into piercing bursts of dying computer noises and feedback. On Guinea Pig 3, the distorted noise of the previous track continues, but this time with some slightly more subdued mouth noises. Finally, we get Guinea Pig 4, which opens with some low rumbling that sounds like gravelly humming, when suddenly Patton comes in screaming like a banshee over and over and over again, along with a brief section of whispering. Thus concludes the Guinea Pig saga, and though I’m not sure how most of these tracks connect, this point in the album really shows how creative and varied Patton can get with this very minimalist concept.
Next up is A Woman With The Skin Of The Moon, a mix of whistling and electronic humming which segues into A Lizard With The Skin Of Woman, which, in a shocking turn of events, contains a bit of actual singing. Patton performs in a very creepy falsetto with lots of reverb, and it rather reminds me of the kind of thing you’d hear sung by a small child in the trailer for a horror film. Patton has said in an interview that part of his writing process is that he would call himself and sing melodies into his own answering machine so he could remember them. If that’s what he’d done for this album, I’d hate to be his roommate, because this and many other tracks account for some of Patton’s eeriest moments of the 90’s.
Next is the song Catheter, which opens with more electronic whining and some deep, subtle vocal pulses that are so enveloping it almost sounds like an 808 bass. The second half features yet more electronic whines, which get panned across the stereo channels before ramping up into pure noise. For an album based entirely around vocals, this song features possibly the least vocals.
In continuing with Patton’s apparent fascination with domestic violence, the next track is entitled “Fix It So The Bruises Don’t Show”. Its rapid alternation between screams and looped beatbox booms sound like they’re almost certainly meant to sonically represent a savage beating, but as for the rest of the track, it devolves into increasingly cartoonish sound effects. I don’t know if this track or indeed anything on this album is supposed to mean something, but it seems pretty open to interpretation.
Every great trilogy needs a thrilling conclusion, which is why Patton blesses us with Robot Sex (Watercolors), which consists of chopped up humming samples. Unfortunately, it ends up becoming the Godfather Part III of the Robot Sex franchise, as I do feel it’s somewhat outshined by the first two installments.
We get some more interesting production on the next track, entitled A Ceremony Of Senses, An Alibi In The Red Light District. The vocals are heavily manipulated, pitch-shifting and stuttering from a combination of audio fuckery and Patton’s own insane, rhythmic babbling. This one is pretty fun, and the sound of the tape being sped up and slowed down is a cool new element to the audio experiments.
On the next track, Butterfly In A Glass Maze, Patton’s vocalizations sound like…I don’t even know, he kind of sounds like he’s bored and trying to make himself laugh. There’s some skittering pops to divide the track up, and in the second half Patton’s warbling gets slightly more intense as he slaps a little reverb on it. Being one of the longer tracks, it’s slightly unadventurous compared to a song like Inconsolable Widows, but obviously I’m grading on a curve here.
We get another cavalcade of random noises on Pajama Party Horror, which actually contains a few milliseconds of what could be samples, and I wouldn’t be surprised if he collected them by holding his microphone up to the radio. A series of bizarre mouth sounds and eardrum-popping screams are chopped up and arranged in a chaotic stream, ending with about 15 seconds of barely audible mewling atop a cold, humming ambience. It’s a quintessential example of the kind of sound experiments this album offers during its most exciting and hectic moments.
The next track, A Leper With The Face Of A Baby Girl, opens with some munching and crunching sounds and quickly turns into an unskilled, freeform combination of experimental throat singing and beatboxing. Patton starts clapping to keep time, turning this into one of the only tracks with an actual beat. Partway into the track, he puts a delay effect on the mic and starts throwing out little shouts rather like the ending of Ma Meeshka Mow Skwoz, only slightly less desperate and frightened. During the ending, Patton is alternating between heavy breathing and shrieking like a rhesus monkey. Even though I enjoy this track, I can’t help but think if I was staying in a hotel and heard these noises coming from the other side of the wall, I’d probably have to call the front desk.
Next is The One-Armed VS. 9 Killers, which cycles quickly between loud, hyper-distorted screams and pounding that elicits a headbanging groove. It’s pretty simple, but it ends up being really fun if you can stand how abrasive it is, as this is another track which manages to have a steady beat while remaining relatively formless.
The next track, Pillow Biter, starts out sounding like two different recordings of the squeaking friction of skin against plastic, hard panned to either channel. The noise intensifies as layers of screaming are introduced, followed by some minimal, delayed booming, along with even more hard panned distorted noise. It almost reminds me of the soundscape featured at the beginning of the Fantômas song Henry: Portrait Of A Serial Killer, an album which surely benefitted from Patton spending years experimenting with ambient and noise music.
For having such an aggressive name, the track Raped On A Bed Of Sand is actually one of the album’s less intense and more minimal moments, consisting entirely of what sounds like one of those plastic tubes that whistles if you spin it around. Again, if any of these titles are meant to represent anything, they’re almost always completely lost on me.
One of the album’s most genuinely unsettling moments comes on Violence⁵. With a heaping helping of dead silence to build tension, Patton warms up with some subtle whines and squeaks before suddenly shouting very loudly, rinse, repeat for about a minute. He then cuts many different screams together into a continuous auditory assault, and the last 30 seconds features Patton’s rhythmic pounding in one channel and yelling in the other as he goes full Street Fighter on his own throat, and the whole thing becomes some kind of insane breakbeat, like he’s trying to recreate a Venetian Snares song with as few resources possible.
We then reach the track I alluded to in the intro, a piece entitled Red Mouth, Black Orgasm. Technically the only song with lyrics, this track contains a rapid series of chopped up and manipulated samples of Patton saying “FUCK” in various ways. Truly, this is the sound of Mike Patton’s soul, and though it clocks in at under 30 seconds, it’s easily one of the standout tracks on pure comedic value alone.
On the next song, the brief Wuxiapian Fantastique, Patton layers many grunts on top of each other that all sound like he was recording the jumping and damage sound effects for several different characters in Super Smash Bros. They coalesce in an interesting way, and the conclusive sigh at the end of the track is one of the album’s funnier bits.
If I’m not mistaken, the album’s longest song title comes on the next track, A Smile, A Slap In The Face, A Fart, A Kiss On The Mouth. Aside from some odd noises at the beginning, this track is mostly taken up by Patton making kissing sounds, aggressively puckering over and over and eventually chopping the noises up so fast that it sounds almost like a mouse squeaking. You could say it’s the most intimate track in a way, if you don’t count the one where he’s in the bath.
After that is Private Lessons On Planet Eros, which lives up to its title by sounding very alien. Patton’s outbursts are chopped, spliced, layered, and pitch shifted into a sound collage that must have taken a while to put together in a pre-DAW era. The variety of sounds he conjures are pretty engaging, and the production is definitely some of the most thought-out on the album.
Near the end of our journey now, we get the song “Pneumonia With Complications”, which consists entirely of about 20 seconds of coughing. Though it’s nothing to write home about musically speaking, it does at least have a concept I understood, and in this disease-ravaged world we’re currently in, perhaps it’s more relevant than ever.
The final and longest track is Orgy In Reverb (10 Kilometers Of Lust), which is probably the most ambient song on the album. Patton’s wailing vocals are buried deep in the background as a ghostly hum of reverb and feedback cascades off of his haunting falsettos. For such a violently erratic and loud album, it ends on a track that’s almost as serene as it is chilling, and I could hear this song soundtracking a level from Silent Hill or some such.
No matter what level of skill, execution, or quality it displays, I think the biggest crime a piece of art can commit is being boring. Adult Themes For Voice is obtuse, antagonistic, and occasionally grating as an album experience, but boring is one thing it’s not. For all this album’s experimental impenetrability, it ended up winning me over, even if it rarely blew me away. A lot of what happens throughout these many tracks was really fun, inventive, and the individual songs rarely overstayed their welcome, if only because of their length. Mike Patton is undoubtedly one of the most boundary-pushing vocalists in the history of American popular music, and his instrument is an inimitable force of nature with power and range that seems to defy human physiology. Even more astonishing is that according to Serj Tankian, lead singer for System of a Down (a band on whose music Mike Patton’s influence cannot be overstated), Patton doesn’t even have a warmup. Perhaps things are different now, but according to Serj’s tour stories, Patton would eat a steak dinner as part of his pre-show ritual and then immediately take the stage to perform with Mr. Bungle without so much as a single vocal exercise. While this is probably the opposite of what any voice teacher would recommend, especially if you’re trying to sing the kind of music Patton typically traffics in, it only adds to the astounding mythos surrounding him that Adult Themes For Voice helped create. This record is puzzling, provocative, indulgent, and certainly not for everybody. However, Patton’s creativity and follow-through is something to admire, and while poptimists might not get a lot out of it, it’s worth checking out if you’re a fan of noise, music that’s on the extreme experimental spectrum, or if you’re just interested in hearing the Man of 1000 Voices put each one of them to use.
I give Mike Patton’s Adult Themes For Voice an extremely vocal 6.5/10
Best Songs: The Man In The Lower Left Hand Corner Of The Photograph, Inconsolable Widows In Search Of Distraction, Violence⁵, Red Mouth Black Orgasm