So Tom decided he would bang on a bit about the excellent ‘Capt. Midnight’, by Mike Patton’s* rather hit-and-miss Tomahawk. Good on him, it’s nice he likes the song enough to post about it et cetera. However, I always considered that my song (you know, because ownership of a recording is largely based on whether a particular dork in Leeds likes it a lot), so what follows is what I think about the song in question.
I always viewed the song as a pastiche of the angst rock movement that seems perennially popular among the pretend disaffected of our society, and in hindsight it seems a long time coming. See, it’s pretty common knowledge that the band which made Patton famous, Faith No More, rather influenced a sub-genre of rock known as ‘nu-metal’. It’s not like FNM are to blame for this, as really good bands in any area of music are likely to spawn numerous inferior imitators. Still, FNM (and numerous other early 90s Californian bands, like Rage Against the Machine, Tool, to a lesser extent Jane’s Addiction…) were pretty solidly ripped off.
And it’s not just nu-metal that ostensibly ripped off FNM, as Biohazard’s entire oeuvre was essentially an urban take on ‘Surprise! You’re Dead’ (apart from that band’s best album, the 1996 release Mata Leão, which is bizarrely slated by their fans as their worst. Probably because they decided to write some songs that didn’t sound like ‘Surprise! You’re Dead’). Still, the influence was there, in possibly the most maligned rock movement of the decade. **
And by ‘nu-metal’, I am of course referring to that cash cow that began with Korn’s success, which soon led into Deftones (who are to the scene what Led Zeppelin were to metal: self-distancing because they wanted to seem cool), Coal Chamber and Limp Bizkit, before snowballing on in directions as superficially broad as Slipknot and Linkin Park. Ironically, a listen back to the album that started it all, Korn (1994), reveals that it sounds precious little like the over-produced slick-boy music that followed. Recorded on fifties equipment, the music sounds surprisingly organic in hindsight, there being more in common with Cypress Hill circa Black Sunday (there’s another one for the early nineties Californian influences on nu-metal, then) than anything that followed. While it set the template of explosive angst building from quiet fidget, as well as the self-loathing routine, that is nothing we hadn’t already heard from Nirvana, whose Nevermind was rather glossier to the ear than the Korn debut.
I digress, as usual. The point is that Faith No More, whether we or they like it or not, begat nu-metal, and in 2003 Mike Patton apparently saw fit to directly respond to that. He had, of course, made reference to nu-metal in the past, such as when it was rumoured that there would be a nu-metal tribute album (‘A FNM tribute record? Who gives a fuck? Do you really want to hear bands ruin great songs? My advice is to let sleeping dogs lie’), or that ex-FNM drummer Mike Bordin would be temporarily replacing injured Korn sticksman David Silveria (I can’t find the quotation online, but it was to the effect that Patton would never be able to trust Bordin again).
FNM ended in early 1998, having witnessed, though not being directly influenced by, the initial rise of nu-metal. Patton’s most prominent immediate post-FNM projects came in the form of Mr. Bungle’s excellent California, as well as the debut from the Fantômas super-group; Tomahawk emerged in late 2001 with a quality self-titled record. After the uncontrollably chaotic controlled chaos of Bungle, and the step beyond provided by Fantômas, Tomahawk – a collection of veterans of FNM, Jesus Lizard, Helmet and Melvins – was more traditionally ‘rock’, albeit with the self-awareness and humour one hopes would accompany such a crafty veteran outfit.
Ergo, while it was based on an updated JeezLiz sound, there were touches of electronics (Patton is a very public fan of such labels as Tigerbeat6), strange vocal themes and enough imagination to keep it interesting. The album also featured a greatly missed facet of Patton: the big chorus. The big chorus features twice on this album, benefiting both ‘God Hates a Coward’ (even if it just a mantra of ‘on and on and on and on and on…’) and the album high point ‘Sweet Smell of Success’, which boasts vocals that sound like Macy Gray and a weird downtempo Bristolian barbershop sequence. Like Tom mentions, there is also a big chorus on second album Mit Gas, and it is the biggest of them all.
Tom hears the song in a different way to me: he views the chorus as an honest expression of catharsis, ‘like all the tense, steadily building electronics in the world couldn’t connote how he feels; he just needs to scream’, but I think Patton’s delivery here goes some distance beyond that. Obviously, there is what Patton calls a ‘visceral, direct impact’ to the chorus, that release of whatever it is he has built up during the first verse, but there is a self awareness to the ostensible catharsis (‘I know it’s unromantic, but I think of myself almost like a craftsman. You get the pieces that fit, and you put them together’).
And here is where the nu-metal reference comes in. See, while previous big Tomahawk choruses were mid-paced, melodic affairs, this is a beast of entirely different stripe; angst and aggression is the name of the game. To these ears, Patton is sending a message to the aggro pretenders by parodying the big, angry chorus, but also performing it so well as to outdo the current generation on every level. He’s the twenty-first century Alexander Pope in other words, as he pulls off the pastiche with no small amount of aplomb and very particular attention to detail. I won’t go as far as to compare ‘Rape this Day’ with The Rape of the Lock, don’t worry.
What really impressed me on a visceral level is how intense the chorus vocal is. Beginning as simply loud projection, the performance builds incredibly subtly through the passage. By about halfway through, I am convinced it is the greatest rock vocal performance I have heard; what is most impressive is the perception that Patton is at once giving the impression of screaming uncontrollably while maintaining complete control of what he is doing. Sadly, as with all the best passages, this is all too brief and not to be repeated (like the deliriously good ‘The Prizefighter’ by Slo Burn).
This segments lyric is what really betrays Patton’s intention behind this chorus; the listener is at once wowed by the delivery while raising an eyebrow at the ostensibly intentionally juvenile wording. But it is in this very juvenility that the truly inspired nature of the work shines through – attributions of anger in the abstract are the epitome of angst rock subject matter, and this song doesn’t disappoint:
Are you surprised?
I’m stayin’ alive, I spit in your eye, Drive a stake in you
This is the first couple of lines that set the scene. Amelodic screaming enters for the first time with:
Take me away, take me away
…Which reaches a crescendo with the ‘world’ beat in:
I gave you the world, it was all for you
Patton then provides dynamic counterpoint with a relatively controlled…
But I’m sick and tired of wasting time, I want mine
…Before repeating the ‘take me away… all for you’ refrain, and finishing with the amazingly affecting, and steadily building:
Stinkin’ lies, stinkin’ lies, stinkin’ lies
This chorus is a particularly effective juxtaposition to the rest of the song: largely electro beats and tinkling keyboard melodies. The transition to the chorus is somewhat foreshadowing, with the introduction of increasingly frequent live drum fills, but not so much as to detract from the impact of the explosion into chorus (a riff on the quiet-loud nineties alt-rock structure?). Oddly, this musical formula returns post-chorus but, as there is no repetition of the chorus, the track just fizzles out, overcome by the blank silence of space; this is the ultimate statement on the futility of directionless teen-rock angst. Patton, in the space of one pop song, displays both his massive vocal talent and inherent satirical streak, plunging a stake into the vampire that would suck at the lifeblood of his enduring inspiration.
* Well, it’s more the baby of erstwhile Jesus Lizard guitarist Duane Denison, but that would get in the way of my point.
** Nu-Metal was still more artistically rewarding than Britpop.