When Mike Patton first brought Fantômas to life in 1998, he described the band's work as "uneasy listening." That's a tremendous understatement when applied to its third and latest album, Delirium Cordia, which consists of one continuous 74-minute piece called "Surgical Sound Specimens from the Museum of Skin." It is without a doubt one of the most challenging aural experiences you will ever lay ears upon -- anxiety-ridden and mordant, it paints a hauntingly surreal picture of surgery from a subjective point of view: You, the listener, are made to feel like you're on an operating table, and the anesthetic hasn't quite kicked in. The mood is downright nightmarish, a real testament to the evocative power of music.
Even the tough, resolved listener who doesn't frighten easily will still have to face the album's visual element: The artwork features reverent but graphic photographs taken during surgical procedures. And if the carnage in the photos and the music isn't enough to rattle you, there's something else: the sound effects. Samples like a nurse saying "Flatline" and the sound of steel hacking through flesh are certain to, well, get under your skin.
Not that it's all harrowing -- surgery is nothing if not physical -- but the long, restrained passages on Cordia suggest an otherworldly spirituality. In other words, Mike Patton's near-death trip of a record is unflinchingly real, but also strives for something higher.
Still, it's a tough one. "It's totally full of anxiety and stress," says bassist Trevor Dunn. "It's not like something you put on in the background and whistle away. It's really kind of disturbing in a way."
Both Patton and Dunn are alumni of Mr. Bungle, the NorCal-based collective from which Patton attracted the attention of Faith No More when that group needed a new singer in 1988. Because Patton's first large-scale national exposure came with the punk-metal mega-hit "Epic" off FNM's The Real Thing (his debut with the band and by far its most accessible record), his career is often misinterpreted as guy-from-metal-combo-goes-avant-garde. In reality, "Epic" -- and Patton's feeble, second-rate Anthony Kiedis-style rapping -- stands out as a commercial anomaly in both Faith No More's and Patton's discographies. His previously displayed avant-garde tendencies have only sharpened over time; Cordia should cement Patton's reputation as a modern-day visionary and one of the world's foremost avant-garde composers.
For a composer he is. Dunn says that unlike Mr. Bungle, Fantômas does not work collaboratively -- he believes that collaborative bands often get locked in the "too many cooks spoil the soup" kitchen. Not so with his current group, rounded out by Melvins guitarist Buzz Osborne and legendary Slayer drummer Dave Lombardo.
"One of the things I like about Fantômas is it's Patton's vision," Dunn says. "He writes music. He lets us know what he wants, and the other band members try and do their best to realize that. There's really not a whole lot of improvisation. There's a little bit which we might milk live, but in general, Mike's got a pretty clear vision of what this music is. I mean, down to really minute details like what cymbals he wants Dave to play in what section, what kind of distortion he wants me to use. Really specific."
In fact, when Fantômas first played live, Patton furnished his bandmates with "cheat sheets" -- notes and stage directions and the like. "We basically put the music together in a week and went on tour immediately, if I recall correctly," Dunn says. "I mean, in a sense, it was basically a more detailed set list, kind of reminding us of what was coming up next. In some cases, yeah, they'd be kind of specific about what notes we were playing. That's kind of gone by the wayside now. We've played a lot of that stuff so much that we've retained it."
To Dunn, that retention is the hardest part of being in Fantômas. The music -- contrary to the output of most bands -- is in continual forward motion and almost completely devoid of repetition. Though he says it's not technically difficult to play, it never comes back to any verses, choruses, or motifs. "There's not a whole lot even as a player to grasp onto," he admits. "The form of the tune just kind of continues from one idea to the next and never returns. It just keeps going. Once you recall something, it's already gone."
And that's not necessarily a bad thing from the stage or the audience, he says. "It's good to be confused, for sure, to be uncomfortable for a minute. ... A lot of my favorite things to listen to are things I didn't like right off the bat, but I gave it some time."
Delirium and its predecessor -- 2001's The Director's Cut, an assemblage of reworked movie themes -- were recorded by Norah Jones engineer Husky Hoskulds. "Blue Note made [Jones] go back and redo [Come Away with Me] 'cause it was too interesting," Dunn says with a laugh. "But he did work on some of the stuff they salvaged for the record that was released. He won a Grammy for that. So we went for that Grammy Award-winning sound."
In fact, Delirium was recorded in tandem with the next Fantômas album, which Dunn says will be a kind of comic-book record with a twist. "It's short, chopped-up metal songs, but there's this cartoon theme going on as opposed to this one that just came out with the medical surgery theme," he says. "A lot of cartoon sound effects interspersed with the metal. It definitely sounds more like a band than Delirium does, which to me doesn't sound like a band at all. It sounds more like a collage."
A very difficult collage -- live, this music promises to challenge audiences and band members in equal measure. Not surprisingly, it's not a big moneymaker, but Dunn doesn't seem to mind. "I realized a long time ago," he says, "that there wasn't a ton of money and fame and fortune in this kind of music that I like."
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