The Mike Patton Corner: Mr. Bungle’s California
Like most of the internet’s favorite music critics, I have a very active presence on Twitter. In fact, part of the reason I created The Mike Patton Corner was to redirect some of my irrepressible admiration for the man from my Twitter feed into a long-form blog. While I’ve tried to keep my inflammatory opinions to my timeline and my rapturous hero-worship to my essays (not always successfully), I’m going to allow one of my blinding hot takes into my review: California is the most overrated place in the country, possibly on Earth. I recently spent close to a week living in the Los Angeles area, driving around and seeing the sights, and I think it’s safe to say that I would sooner eat a hot bag of shit than go back there. I have much love in my heart for a number of people who choose to live there, lost though their souls may be, but L.A., Silicon Valley, Sacramento, these are among the most rotten and accursed places in this illegitimate state we call a country. So, as California is a sort of microcosm of everything terrible and repulsive about our culture, it only makes sense that its greatest sons, the boys of Mr. Bungle, would name an entire album after it.
For a band like Mr. Bungle, who made consistently daring and increasingly experimental music all throughout their career, it’s extremely rare for their best, most ambitious, and most accessible work to all be the same record, but on their 1999 album California, Mr. Bungle took their sound into a new stratosphere with the most mature songwriting, most maximalist production, and most compelling compositions of their woefully short catalog, not to mention the influence they took from 20-odd genres of all different sorts. California is the full production, the absolute apex of everything Mr. Bungle had sought to achieve as a musical project, and though the band had spent over a decade making some of the most radio-unfriendly music ever released by a major label, their final(?) album is a pop record so fun and catchy, I feel like I could actually recommend it to my mom without much in the way of a serious disclaimer. Astoundingly, this incredibly dense and complex album was recorded without the aid of Pro Tools, and was instead pieced together using two 24-track tape machines and two different ADAT machines. While Trevor Dunn has described the recording process as a “nightmare,” the result was Bungle’s most lush, layered, and extravagant effort by a huge margin. California is a mind-blowing and consistently excellent release that could go toe-to-toe with some of the best records of the 90’s, overflowing with creativity and hooky, dynamic songs that have barely aged a day in the 21 years since its release.
The album opens with blissful beach sound effects, and the band come in with a beautiful musical intro inspired by the sounds of Hawaii. Every big production needs a grand opening number, and California’s is the theatrical and bombastic Sweet Charity. This song actually sounds an awful lot like it could be a song from a real musical, appropriately so given the fact that it’s named after one. Reverby plucks of electric guitar and gorgeous, swelling synths provide Patton with a serene backdrop to croon over, and the band incorporates some excellent bits of extra percussion during the quieter sections. The lyrics are a little hard to decipher, but one popular interpretation is that it’s about someone altering their mind (likely through substances) to make themselves feel better:
Will turn to laughter/
In your technicolor heartbeat/
And they say/
It helps you forget everything”
The chorus on this track really pops — Patton reinforces the catchy hook with layers of his own vocals, scatting in both a booming baritone and breathy falsetto atop the clavichords and icy synth strings. The song moves into brief sections of easy listening and more Hawaiian slide guitar before clean, sparkling electric guitar chords help bring the chorus back. This song is slicker than hell, and as with all the tracks, the mix is HD crystal clear, giving every instrument the perfect amount of presence. There’s a great key change in the last chorus, and the song wistfully fades out. This is arguably Mr. Bungle’s greatest opening track from what’s arguably their greatest album.
Next is what might be my all-time favorite Mr. Bungle song and possibly one of the greatest songs ever written, None Of Them Knew They Were Robots. I have described this track as sounding like “if the Brian Setzer Orchestra were composed entirely of demons,” and I stand by that; the song takes that danceable rock ‘n roll throwback sound and sets it ablaze, resulting in one of the most devilish bops of the 90’s. Patton can even be heard singing in Latin during some sections, with incredibly tight vocal layering. The track opens with hellish, fuzzed-out guitar riffs over a headbanging drumbeat, accompanied by horror synths. The horn section sounds spectacular as Patton’s vocals are panned during the opening verse, and the toe-tappin’ rhythm is accentuated by steady, watery guitar plucks. The manic pre-chorus sees Trey Spruance playing an impossibly fun and incredibly nimble guitar solo as Patton hoots and hollers in the background, and some key-smash organ introduces possibly the best earworm hook in Bungle’s catalog:
The flood of counterfeits released/
The black cloud/
Reductionism and the beast/
Automatons gather all the pieces/
So the world may be increased/
In stimulation jubilation/
For all the deceased”
The lyrics to this song were written by Trey Spruance, who clarified their meaning with a long explanation that’s not a whole lot more scrutable to me than the lyrics themselves, but he did mention that the imagery and references of both a technological and religious nature were not to assert that one is better or worse, but rather to “chart the linear history of where science and religion converge in their satanic pact.” Said Spruance, “…these images deal with the timeless tendency to overly-literalistic reductionism — how we render the universe to ourselves prematurely, and round out the edges to make it consistent with our beliefs. No area of inquiry is immune — we’re lucky if we can penetrate any respective channel of ‘human knowledge’ deep enough to discover the three or four totally shit-upon luminaries who are sitting there dispersed through time in backed-up sewer-systems of brainbending superfluous nonsense.” Maybe I’m not smart or crazy enough to fully understand what he’s trying to say about people subconsciously shaping their own perspectives with varying levels of relevance to facts and reality, but god is this song fucking great. I especially love the use of sound effects; cartoonish explosions, camera clicking and whirring, and even hand-farts adding character to the already outrageous instrumental. Patton’s vocals switch between sly crooning, hardcore yelling, and exuberant scatting on a dime, and he even does some villainous whispering over some of the quieter, jazzier sections, which feature the return of Trevor Dunn’s standup bass. Patton plays the demon Elvis with deadly charisma, and even trades off with his own shouted overdubs in one of the most entertaining sections:
“Lindy Hop around the truth!/
JUMP BACK, WOLF PACK ATTACK/
Swingin’ up there in the noose!/
SLAP BACK, WHITE SHARK ATTACK”
He even delivers the last pre-chorus in a grizzly and heavily distorted death growl, leading to a fantastically satisfying finish. Every moment of this song’s 6 minutes is absolutely perfect, and shows that the band’s unique style of zany prog could take on a genre pastiche like this and make it sound cohesive, consistently catchy, and a ton of fun.
Next is arguably the band’s most beautiful and tragic ballad, and probably the best song Trevor Dunn ever wrote for Mr. Bungle, Retrovertigo. The song is about the cynical way that capitalism commodifies nostalgia while ignoring the suffering of the impoverished, and the title is a term Dunn coined for the disillusionment one feels when considering the way our society values money and aesthetics over human life. Part of the reason the songs on this album are a bit more traditionally structured (at least by Bungle standards) may have been that a lot of the music was written by the members individually, and according to Dunn, each member “brought things to the collective table that somehow coalesced without premeditation.” That sense of comradery helped whatever ideas the members had translate into extremely well fleshed-out tracks, this being one of the best examples. Over an intro section featuring a sweet combo of gentle keys and soft rock acoustic guitar, Patton’s gentle falsetto is a beautiful contrast to the dark lyrics:
“While I’m dulled by excess/
And a cynic at best/
My art imitates crime/
Paid for by/
The slow, dramatic build of this track is paced incredibly well, with thunderous drums, church bells, and fuzzy guitars adding a huge punch to the bridge, which features even more depressing lyrics:
“A tribute to false memories/
Is it fashion or disease?/
Remains a mouth to feed/
Sell the rights/
To your plight/
And you’ll eat”
Patton belts the final chorus passionately, and the song ends on a chord that leaves the progression unresolved, mimicking the feeling of unease and uncertainty this track channels. Dunn should be commended for this one, it’s a masterclass in melancholy and one of Bungle’s best songs.
There’s a popular music meme that shows two houses side by side, one bright and colorful, the other black and gothic, and they’re labelled “music” and “lyrics” respectively. Perhaps no song in Bungle’s catalog embodies this meme better than the next track, The Air-Conditioned Nightmare. Named for a Henry Miller memoir about his road trip through the United States after spending nearly 10 years living in Paris, this track is one of the band’s most musically ebullient and lyrically devastating songs. The intro features reverbed guitar chords and castanets inspired by Spaghetti Western film scores before a cheeky organ riff introduces the main musical concept, inspired by the surf rock and psychedelic pop of The Beach Boys, whose musical and lyrical contrasts were not unlike the ones in this track. Beneath the wackiness, the lyrics paint a dark portrait of a dementia patient nearing the end of their life, with the titular “nightmare” probably referring to a hospital or nursing home. Were it not for the speedy, driving drums and rapid guitar, the average listener might get choked up at the morbid refrain:
“Walkin’ on air, up from the wheelchair/
I’ll find the suicide that I deserve/
Walkin’ on sand, forgotten where I am/
But it’s so comfortable here in the sun”
The layering of Patton’s vocals once again works to fantastic effect, and the hard-panning of the chorus lyrics’ beats is incredibly ear-catching. The enchanting bridge features more creative percussion and dreamlike keys, and the poetry in the lyrics is some of the album’s most evocative, describing California as “the rolling hills of Hell.” The outro’s lyrics describe the narrator’s demise with heartbreaking simplicity, making this one of the album’s most deceptively emotional tracks. Listening to songs like this have really opened my eyes to how far Mr. Bungle came as a band from their scrappy roots; no longer were they using their eclectic influences and unique lyrics as a weapon to gleefully agitate the listener with dissonance and vulgarities, they had evolved into a band with a lot more potency and vision, the likes of which is rarely seen.
Next up is Ars Moriendi, which translates to “The Art of Dying,” and incorporates even more Latin into the lyrics. The influences on this track are all over the place, pulling from dance, middle eastern folk, polka, and thrash metal, all seamlessly combined into one of the album’s grooviest and proggiest offerings. Is this track cultural appropriation? Decidedly so. Is it tasteful? One can rarely be certain, especially given Bungle’s past penchant for abject tastelessness, as well as the, uh, “culturally indistinct” accent Patton sings in. That being said, this is one of the most instrumentally impressive tracks, switching between tempo and tone in Bungle’s typical breakneck fashion. The lyrics reference centuries-old Latin texts that instruct the reader on how, in the Christian perception, to die a good death, written with the backdrop of 15th century social change following the Black Plague, as well as an even older Roman poem by Gaius Valerius Catullus about the untimely death of his brother. If the backstory on a lot of these songs is to be believed, California is evidence that the Bungle boys were astonishingly well-read. Hooks abound in this track, with lots of interesting instrumentation and expressive vocals, and the verses are impossible not to dance to, making it feel a bit like a more refined and focused sister song to Desert Search for Techno Allah. Patton even does some more falsetto scatting to match some of the song’s more repetitive melodies, something which was fast becoming one of his calling cards. The thrash metal sections rage, but they’re equally as fun as the polka passages, which is not an easy thing for a band to achieve, but Bungle manage to pull it off with style. At a little over four minutes, this song has so much going on it feels much shorter than its runtime, and is a great way to close out the album’s immaculate first half.
Another tragic ballad follows, the vocal pop-inspired Pink Cigarette, which follows the tale of a man who takes his own life over a ruined relationship. This track has a lot of reverb, and very spacious production, with Patton trading off between a breathy falsetto and a baritone croon, which converge in the prechorus. The track really comes to life in the chorus with splashy guitar and a choir of background vocals as Patton milks the despair:
“I found a pink cigarette/
On the bed the day that you left/
And how could I forget/
That your lips were there?/
Your kiss goes everywhere/
Touches everything but me”
The spare piano in the chorus and outro is simple but effective, and the track becomes more layered in the outro as Patton counts down the hours until this girl finds him dead. Another feature of the outro is the roar of Patton’s distant, agonized screams, and as the song draws to a close, you can literally hear him flatlining, with the song ending on that eerie electronic tone. This track is as sad as it is gorgeous, with some wonderful arrangements and one of the album’s catchiest and most memorable (not to mention singable) choruses.
We get a little levity on the next track, Trey Spruance’s weird and funky Golem II: The Bionic Vapour Boy. The Golem, of course, is a huge clay monster from Jewish folklore, and according to Spruance, “Golem II is a Sesame Street/Muppet Movie style treatment of the the subject of Artificial Intelligence and the ‘old’ Golem’s counterpart in the modern world — a growing mythic reality coming ever closer to the surface.” This song’s main melody is sort of like a lullaby, but with robot vocals and squishy funk keys, as well as a lot of off-kilter drumming and time signature switch-ups. The lyrics are hard to hear a lot of the time, but the vocals call back to 70’s funk and soul in a really creative way, not unlike Faith No More’s Crack Hitler. This song is danceable in a very low-key kind of way, and though it sounds just a smidge less ambitious than some of the other tracks, it is a fun, if somewhat inscrutable moment for the album.
Next is Trevor Dunn’s grand and spacious track The Holy Filment, based on some abandoned ideas he had written for Disco Volante, and lyrically about physicist Eric Lerner’s book The Big Bang Never Happened, which sought to refute the popular claim about the universe’s explosive origin. Of all this album’s songs, this is the least erratic and most atmospheric, unfolding very slowly with arpeggiating pianos and pillowy synths, and Patton singing in an extremely high falsetto. It must be an absolute dream to write songs for Mike Patton to sing, never having to worry whether something is within his capabilities. Like a number of Bungle songs, this track sounds like it could be part of a film score, but it also takes inspiration from 70’s space jazz, with its chill, intergalactic vibes and lush orchestration. In keeping with the recurring theme of technological dominance over mankind, the lyrics discuss the way technology is only as good or as flawed as its creators:
“In fiber optic illusion/
The flickering eyes/
By fluorescent lights/
Supplicate before machines/
Though this song is unique on the album with its almost total lack of percussion and extended instrumental sections, the ambiance it conjures fits the album’s fantastical nature extremely well, and its main melodies are as memorable as many of this album’s best. While one of my favorite features of this band’s music is its tendency to vary widely in its genre influence, jumping between them with prog proficiency, this track takes a few simple chord progressions and sticks to a sound long enough to let something really beautiful and satisfying unfold.
The penultimate track is the doo-wop pastiche Vanity Fair, and though it contains no otherworldly shrieks or screams, I consider this to be one of Patton’s best and most impressive vocal performances in the Bungle discography. Patton hasn’t really sung like this in this register since The Real Thing, and he is nailing those notes without resorting to singing through his nose. I could be wrong, but my interpretation of the lyrics is that it’s either about someone succumbing to capitalist influence, or perhaps someone trying to divorce themselves from their own sexuality so as to be less susceptible to manipulation by the media. The first verse describes an alluring figure who presumably represents some kind of Hollywood/capitalist entity:
“You’re not human/
You’re a miracle/
A preacher with an animal’s face/
In your sexy/
Neon smoke screen/
Lie the supersalesmen of vanity”
The second verse is when images of castration start to come into the fold:
I could cut you/
And remove the sheath of your ignorance/
Bless the eunuch/
And the Skopsti/
Will you hurt me now and make a million?”
The quick-strummed guitar chords, steady pianos, old school horns, and layered background vocals make this song sound simultaneously a lot like the genre it’s emulating, and also unique to the sound of this band and this album. One of the best parts is the incredible bridge, where the band goes from quiet and reserved to loud and overblown as Patton cries:
“Now the hourglass is empty/
The moment of my de-sexing/
CUT IT! CUT IT!/
Cut this cancer from my soul!”
Like The Holy Filament, one of this song’s strengths is its consistency, because a great pop song like this would only suffer from being as schizophrenic as, oh, say, the track that follows it. It takes a long time to prove you can do anything, but call this one another notch in Patton’s belt, because he does this style justice while being sure to add his own eccentric spin.
The grand finale to this album and indeed Mr. Bungle’s career (for a while, at least) is Goodbye Sober Day, written in its entirety by Patton. A recurring phenomenon when listening to Patton’s music is the feeling of “I don’t know what this is, but it’s brilliant,” and this track is one of the most classic examples. Combining experimental, jazz, dark cabaret, psychedelic, prog, and metal, Patton weaves a discombobulating tale of addiction in the album’s most multi-phased track. Even though Patton is known for his general aversion to drugs (the occasional drink, joint, or caffeine boost notwithstanding), he sings about addiction pretty poetically:
“How can I massage/
This intergalactic ulcer?”
“Goodbye sober day/
The years grew wings and flew away/
Ghosts of the past become barbarians/
Of the future”
Clavichords, organs, sound effects, electronic noise, all of the tricks this album had up its sleeve seem to converge on this song, making it a finale that truly sums up everything amazing and magical about all the previous tracks. Though the verses, with all their tiny details and incredibly creative ideas, shine as some of the album’s most inspired and engaging moments, my personal favorite part is the middle section, which begins with the instrumentation melting into a combination of electronic bleeps and bloops and heavily layered vocals. Patton’s lead vocal cuts through the ambient madness, singing mind-bending, satanic curses in a religious tone:
“May your sun blow out like a candle/
May your sea burn like tar/
May your sky be rolled up like a scroll/
May your blue moon drip with blood”
This leads into a very FANTôMAS-like section where a simple-but-heavy groove metal section rages underneath Patton’s “CHAK CHAK CHAK CHAKA CHAKA CHAKA CHAKA CHAKA” scats. After a very dramatic build, it segues back into the main section, which gets even more chaotic with the addition of even more experimental electronic noise, and when the track finally devolves into hellish, psychedelic mayhem, the album, as well as the legendary original run of Mr. Bungle’s career, draws to an epic close.
What else is there to say? There is absolutely nothing on Earth like California by Mr. Bungle, and there may never be. This album achieves something I don’t think the boys could ever have dreamed of in their demo days; a perfectly executed collage of well over a dozen genres, complete with a bevy of fascinating and exciting accoutrements, and some wonderfully profound lyrics. You could call this a pop record, but it’s so much more than that; it’s a raging wildfire and a perfectly plotted, cinematic masterpiece. It’s perverted and cynical, it’s joyous and radiant, it’s poppy and proggy, and it’s one of Mike Patton’s most incredible and timeless contributions to music. Perhaps Disco Volante is more complex, and perhaps the self-titled was more influential, but California is a perfect diamond, forged from the coal of rough releases like Raging Wrath of the Easter Bunny and Bowel of Chiley, chiseled into a shining display of musical mastery, and in my humble opinion, should be considered not just Mr. Bungle’s greatest work, but a towering achievement in music. Bungle were a “rock” band, they were an “experimental” band, but California transcends all that; it’s their most well-structured album filled with their most well-structured songs, it takes on an incredible number of influences with precision that borders on showboating, and it does it all with crystal-clear production worthy of its boundless ambition and perfect execution.
I give Mr. Bungle’s California a like, totally tubular 10/10
Best Songs: None Of Them Knew They Were Robots, Retrovertigo, The Air-Conditioned Nightmare, Goodbye Sober Day