Saturday, July 01, 2006

Mr. Bungle, California

Bungle has never been the most out there, musically speaking, of vocalist Mike Patton’s myriad projects. That honor would likely go either to his solo efforts or a one-shot project he did with Japanese “noise manipulator” Masami Akita called Maldoror, which even some dedicated Pattonites have been known to warn novices off of. (This is also as good a place as any to mention that if I speak primarily about Patton in the course of this to the exclusion of his bandmates, it’s not for lack of appreciation of their formidable talents, but simply the result of a greater familiarity with his career.)

Bungle’s self-titled debut LP sounded like something cooked up by a group of grad students living in a frat house located on carnival grounds. The barrage of obscenities, laundry list of perversion, and gamut of grotesque sounds, most of which emerged from Patton’s throat, served to please the lowbrows and distract casual listeners from the fact that it was a meticulously crafted piece of work (produced by meticulous craftsman John Zorn). The combination of funk, ska, and punishing metal guitar courtesy of Trey Spruance, was not a new venture. The attempt to morph it all into circus music was. The clownhouse kegger atmosphere was also something of a ruse. These clowns had no problem with you laughing at them because they knew that the last laugh was on you.

The follow-up, Disco Volante, found them both shedding their more adolescent instincts and favoring their artsy side. (And ironically, while Zorn did not come along for the second ride, it actually sounded even more like something he would have done than the first album had.) Patton kind of took a step back from the front of the stage for DV. By his own admission he didn’t do much songwriting for the album and many of the tracks, a good number of which didn’t even have lyrics in the traditional sense, required him to retool the role of the vocalist, becoming less the figurehead singing on top of the other instruments and more one of those instruments himself, a practice he has repeated on other projects. I’ve often wondered if this wasn’t in part a reaction against the repeated references to Bungle as Patton’s “side project” from Faith No More, ignoring the fact that he had been in the other band first and had only joined FNM with the stipulation that he would continue his work with Bungle. Whatever the reason he did it, it resulted in a fascinating piece of work, a series of soundscapes where avant jazz leads to speed metal leads to surf music leads to techno leads to a Morricone soundtrack leads to, etc., occasionally in the service of some rather lofty concepts. It’s fun to imagine what the party animals who rallied around the first album’s gutter-minded humor must have thought when they gave this one a spin. “What the fuck?” seems a safe guess.

And then came California.

Their taste for genre gumbo is in evidence from the opening cowboy clop accompanied by Hawaiian slide guitar, as is the fact that they can still turn on a dime when they fall effortlessly into a samba lounge shuffle in the middle of the second verse. This song is ‘Sweet Charity,’ written by Patton and featuring the first of a number of standout vocal performances. This is a very good thing. As much as I appreciated their approach in making Disco Volante, in general I like my albums Patton-intensive. And I’m happy to say he’s back in full force on this one, contributing a lot to the writing and singing his twisted guts out, though while he’s still all over the place in terms of register, timbre, crazy-ass noises, etc., what little of his trademark roars and demon-spawn shrieks are in evidence are buried in the mix.

The irony of the beautiful, Trevor Dunn-penned ‘Retrovertigo’ is that it may be one of the few songs on the album that doesn’t have an overabiding retro element to it, from the doo-woppity of ‘Vanity Fair’ to the Swingle Singers Space Trip of ‘The Holy Filament’ to the assorted moments when they seem to be channeling that most Californian of musical institutions, the Beach Boys. (Or would that be Charles Manson?) And in fact, ‘Retrovertigo’s electric piano could itself be considered part and parcel of the largely late-‘60s, early-‘70s vibe that runs through much of the album, all the way down to the garishly vibrant floral photos in the insert. But it’s always been their willingness to go to the most unexpected of places that’s set them above so many others. If I hadn’t already known that these were my kind of musicians, it would have become apparent the moment I heard them wed a heavy metal stomp to a Balinese kecak chant.

But the most astonishing thing about California is that while we’re still unquestionably at the carnival, they’ve added a whole bunch of new attractions that are bound to shock. To whit…

THRILL! at the…mature, conventionally structured rock’n’roll songs? Done without sacrificing their inventiveness and all the more revelatory in light of what had come before. The more conventional songs are so good, in fact, that I found myself at first becoming irritated with the standard gonzo compositions, like ‘None of Them Knew They Were Robots’ or ‘Ars Moriendi.’ I got over it, of course – they’re great songs. It’s just sort of like having a personal chef who has for years dazzled you with his Chicken Kiev and his Beef Wellington only to serve up one day the best plate of scrambled eggs you’ve ever had. You’d have to wonder why he’d never made them for you before.

MARVEL! at the…restraint? They seem to have realized somewhere along the way that just because you can incorporate six different styles into one song doesn’t mean that you have to. Witness Spruance’s ‘Golem II: The Bionic Vapour Boy’ in which he takes a calliope melody and transforms it into a P-Funk-style groove, thereby paying simple, extremely weird tribute to two of the band’s favorite genres.

BE ASTOUNDED! by the…SINCERITY?!?! Shit, that one really is astounding. Bungle has always been first and foremost about the freak show. Their lyrics can be surprisingly cerebral (surprising if you’re only familiar with the likes of ‘Squeeze Me Macaroni’ or ‘The Girls of Porn’ that is), but the acid circus delivery, along with Patton’s frequently tongue-in-cheek tone, is less conducive to metaphysical musings than groovy freakouts.

But then there’s the aforementioned ‘Retrovertigo,’ which, if I’m reading it right, is a sober reflection on the overwhelming power of ingrained apathy. And, even more confounding, ‘Pink Cigarette,’ a tribute-cum…I would instinctively say ‘parody,’ of a 1950s death ballad, but surprisingly it’s a gray area. They do such a good job of capturing the mood, and the subject matter – that of a stylish couple with an ugly secret, the male half of whom has chosen to kill himself rather than further put up with his girlfriend's abuse (possibly physical, possibly emotional) – is certainly strong enough, that the song achieves a dimension of actual poignancy. But fear not; they haven’t gone completely over to the other side. I’m pretty sure I can still hear that tongue in that cheek, and I don’t believe for a moment that we’re not supposed to get at least a morbid little chuckle out of the finale, increasingly melodramatic backing vocals swelling, as the protagonist, speaking from beyond the grave, counts down the hours until his lover finds his swinging corpse, her screams, provided by Patton himself, ringing out in the distance. It’s chilling and funny, and subsequently one of my favorite rides in one hell of a park.

That this album is such a roaring success makes it all the more unfortunate that Mr. Bungle is apparently kaput. There’s never been any official announcement, but things assorted members have said make it fairly clear that they’re not interested in working together any more as a unit. Things change, of course, and we can always hold out hope, but it’s possible that Bungle may be one of those cases, like the poetry of Baudelaire and the paintings of Vermeer, where we have to settle for an output the unfortunate paucity of which is gloriously eclipsed by its splendor.

Put that in your seltzer bottle enema and squirt it.

Go back to Plate O' Shrimp

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