The Mike Patton Corner: Tomahawk’s self-titled
Mike Patton has been called a lot of things over his career, including but not limited to: Man of 1000 Voices, Godfather of Nu-Metal, and “a complete and utter musical visionary and a mind-blowing and standard-warping genius.” But ask anyone he’s collaborated with, and one word is sure to come to mind: Workaholic. In the late 90’s and early 2000’s, Patton was on fire; the collapse of Faith No More had only increased his drive to create, resulting in an impressively huge if somewhat inconsistent body of work, where Patton was putting out some of his most and indeed least impressive projects. It was in 1999 when, while attending a concert in Nashville, he happened to meet Duane Denison, legendary guitarist for renowned and Kurt Cobain-approved alt rock band The Jesus Lizard. Shortly thereafter, they began to swap demos and jam together, eventually forming a supergroup with Helmet drummer John Stanier and Melvins/Cows bassist Kevin Rutmanis. That group was Tomahawk, and in 2001 they released their self-titled debut album, which was liked by critics and absolutely abhorred by fans of the band Tool, whom they toured alongside to promote the record.
Tomahawk is a far cry from Tool, both musically and lyrically, and though Patton is no stranger to the type of proggy instrumentals and virtuosic vocals Maynard James Keenan & Co. are known for, his approach to songwriting is pretty concise and traditional this time around. The instrumentation takes cues from blues, hard rock, and country (among other genres), and even the vocal performances are a bit more reserved, at least by Mike Patton standards. Tomahawk on this album end up sounding like a comfortably hooky and aggressive side project sure to appeal to fans of Faith No More, with more wild eccentricity than your average hard rock outfit, albeit with a great deal less funk.
The album kicks off with Flashback, a bluesy hard rock song with some disturbing lyrics about recalling traumatic childhood memories. Patton’s demeanor is snarling and aggressive, and the drumbeat rollicks steadily, sometimes accentuated by clock ticking sound effects. This track has great energy, and the dynamics of the structure forecast many songs to come, building tension on the verses and releasing it all on the hook. There’s an interesting breakdown that features a filtered trip-hop drumbeat before bursting back into screaming and riffage, and overall the band does a great job of introducing their sound, coalescing dramatically into another explosive opening track in Patton’s vast collection.
Next is 101 North, which kicks off with subtle guitar chugging over a steady, head-bobbing groove, accompanied by Patton’s bizarre throat squeaks. He dubs his thin falsetto atop low grumbling as his vocals mingle with minimal, Pixies-esque riffs before vocally doubling a slightly jazz-tinged guitar lead. Lyrically, the song seems to be written from the perspective of an armed, tweaked-out hitchhiker who’s looking to take a ride by force, just to see a good time. As Patton belts the chorus, the drums play an off-kilter rhythm that slides smoothly back into the verse. The story really amps up in the second half, with Patton’s intensity increasing as he growls the grim lyrics:
“It’s Friday night, I’m gonna fuck or fight/
This time, all I need is one more ride/
I’m car-jackin’ on a fine spring afternoon/
Don’t kid a kidder, don’t shit a bullshitter/
I’m hotter than the crack you’re cookin’ up/
I’m colder than the smack you’re jackin’ up/
I’m a balloon and I am losin’ air/
Squeak, ah, squeak/
THERE’S BLOOD ON ME!”
The song takes its time fading out, ending as eerily as it began, and with a strong and unusual concept, this track ends up being very well-executed.
We then get Point and Click, another track with a subtle-but-driving beat, but this time with a prominent, meaty bassline and rhythmic breathing. Much like the aforementioned Pixies, Tomahawk is a group that utilizes simple, yet explosively dynamic song structures, sometimes erupting on the chorus, and other times building up to a dramatic climax. This song is the latter, although I do wish the ending was a big bigger, it’s just a tad underwhelming considering it takes over two minutes to get where it’s going. The lyrics seem to be about a guy who wants to be king of the scumbags, some kind of vague appeal to the underbelly of society, and it sort of straddles the line between being abstract and underwritten. That’s not to say this song has nothing going for it, the instrumental is as tight and moody as anything else on the album, but considering the way other tracks come to life so viciously in the chorus, the payoff isn’t quite as spectacular.
Another sly groove comes in on one of the album highlights, God Hates A Coward, which sports a killer hook, unnerving and erratic vocal performance, and the kind of squealing alien electronics that tend to populate Patton’s 2000’s output. Though almost disappointingly short, this track features menacing hits of guitar that punctuate Patton’s fearsome roars, and there’s a popular live video of this track where Patton sings through some kind of vocal distortion apparatus made out of a gas mask. It squeezes just two verses and two choruses into under three minutes, but it’s very memorable despite its length, and as with all the tracks, the production leaves each instrument enough room to be audible.
One of the loudest songs comes on POP 1, although you wouldn’t know it from the opening with Patton singing barely above a whisper atop swelling synth chords before exploding into one of the most memorable hooks, Patton repeatedly shrieking:
“THIS BEAT COULD WIN ME A GRAMMY”
The song ramps up a lot after the hook, which comes back after a much quieter section. Like most of this record, the song is pretty short and sweet, but that chorus packs one of the album’s biggest punches, and the way Patton’s post-hook vocals gel with the nimble bassline goes to show how much Rutmanis’s admirable dexterity adds to the sound the band has crafted. The song ends similarly to how it began, with Patton crooning over subtle synths, an adequate capper to this otherwise blood-pumping track.
A dirge-like drumbeat and droning feedback open the next song, Sweet Smell of Success, which is a very grungy piece of 90’s alt rock balladry that reminds me a bit of Smashing Pumpkins, especially the plucked guitar riffs and Patton’s particularly thin, nasally vocal passages. This song has some of the album’s most morbid lyrics; it reads like a twisted love song from a killer’s POV, with the “sweet smell” possibly referring to the smell of the victim’s dead body:
“Your skin melts in wax/
Woven silk eyelids/
The arms of somnambulist/
You got your moneys worth/
Soul hangs in the closet/
Paper mache heart/
Put on a hell of a show/
Your hate crime/
Wasn’t loving me/
Wash your face/
Tryin’ to make it better/
And we’ll never make it better”
Rumor has it that this album has a loose concept about a serial killer, which would make this song a fitting centerpiece. This is another track that features a bridge with a trip-hop drumbeat, which changes up the vibe nicely while still fitting with the rest of the track. I’m not sure what the glue is that holds together the disparate sections in many of Patton’s songs, but in one reviewer’s opinion, it’s part of what makes his music scratch such a particular itch in the brain of the restless listener.
Next is another one of my favorites, the maniacal Sir Yes Sir, which features another creeping verse that explodes into a loud and memorable chorus. One of the more simple songs (structurally, at least, because it does feature an odd time signature), Patton switches between whispers on the quiet sections and screams on the loud ones. Keeping with the way many a track on this album is built, the final verse builds and builds to an abrupt ending after a brief bridge. The lyrics are most likely written from the perspective of a soldier (or perhaps the concept of a soldier), which keeps the murder theme consistent:
“Send a mushroom cloud of love/
We even speak the truth/
Shoot a victim man/
’Tis a sacrificial lamb/
We all want what’s free/
’Cause we have no memory/
We are coming home/
We know we are not alone”
This song is not only describing acts of war, but lightly delves into the trauma that battle can inflict, making this song, in some capacity, a direct political statement. Patton’s panned screams on the chorus are among my favorite moments on the album, and it reminds me just a little bit of the anti-war Primus track Sgt. Baker (one of my favorites from that band as well).
We then get the extremely jazzy intro to Jockstrap, a track that further demonstrates the amount of eclecticism demanded of any musician with whom Mike Patton collaborates. The low, creaky vocals over the swing beat contrast eerily with the repetitive, horror movie melodies of the guitar riff, which warm the song up for about a minute before it slams into raucous, bluesy headbanging and distorted vocals. Patton’s singing is particularly unhinged on the louder sections, briefly showcasing his trademark shrieks in a way that forecasts one of my favorite Patton-related releases, his Dillinger Escape Plan collaboration Irony Is A Dead Scene. A quieter, bass-driven middle section transitions into a mild hard rock outro, capping this well-rounded track off in a fairly satisfying way.
Next is the extremely creepy Cul-De-Sac, an acoustic track that comes off as more of an interlude/intro to the next track, clocking in at under two minutes and transitioning jarringly into Malocchio. This track features another steady groove with a sludgy bassline and quiet electronic squeals, and Patton’s vocals again switch between swaggering bass and intense screams. Though extremely intense for brief flashes and structurally sound, this song ends up striking me as a bit non-essential. It doesn’t stand out as much as others do, and while it for sure maintains the standard the album sets for itself, it doesn’t reach the heights and memorability of the best cuts. The Achilles Heel of this album is simultaneously one of its strengths: its best songs pack the punch of a great, concise punk song, but its weaker tracks lack memorability and focus, tending to blend into one another.
A Halloween vibe comes through on the track Honeymoon, a sly, low-key tune in 5/4 that makes for one of the album’s most quiet songs. While nothing entirely new or outlandish, it does stand out for maintaining its restrained energy. Lyrically we get more murder implications, with references that seem to imply a body being dumped in, or perhaps dragged out of a body of water:
“Salty clumps of seaweed hair”
“Lillies sway indoors”
The song is consistently gloomy, but does reach an eerie, albeit brief emotional peak towards the middle with more powerful vocals and brighter guitar leads. The track is certainly an effectively unsettling moment, and though it’s not necessarily a standout in terms of energy or songwriting, it’s a good reprieve from the well-worn song structure you’d have come to expect by this point in the album.
The penultimate track is Laredo, which continues the spooky vibes in the intro, Patton’s breathy crooning accentuated by thick bass and nylon-string guitars before accelerating into the catchy, repeated hook:
“The cat’s in the bag and the bag’s in the river”
Structurally, this song sticks to the formula, but with a few unique tricks to keep it from getting stale. At around 4 minutes, this is clearly the album’s climax, and it’s an epic one at that; an effectively brazen and energetic moment that sums up all the strengths of this record. The grooves and riffs are visceral, Patton sounds positively villainous over the many instrumental changes, and the brittle guitar solo towards the middle is a welcome and unexpected moment. Like I said, everything great about this record culminates on this song, and though I would have preferred a big finish to a fade-out, the ending is appropriately chaotic.
The final track is Narcosis, which features a lethargic beat, descending slide-guitar riffs, and a western-inspired combination of Patton’s whistling and layered, wordless baritone. This is more of an extended outro than a full-fledged song (though it does end up being longer than most of the main tracks), and its focus on ambiance makes it a unique and almost spiritual experience for Tomahawk’s debut, fading out into nonexistence like all living things must do.
Tomahawk’s self-titled is a strong statement, but ultimately a mixed bag. What it lacks in the consistency and eclecticism of Patton’s best offerings, it mostly makes up for in vigor and its ability to conjure horrific vibes. It achieves uniformity at the expense of stripping Patton’s songwriting of some of its more iconic quirks, and while this does give Tomahawk a sound and lyrical tone that’s distinct from other Patton projects, it would take time for them to put together an album with consistently inventive and standout songwriting.
I give Tomahawk’s self-titled a clinical 6.5/10
Best Tracks: 101 North, God Hates A Coward, Sir Yes Sir, Laredo