Tonic Immobility by TomahawkRelease date: March 26, 2021
Label: Ipecac Recordings
The affinity for one of rock’s most enduring, prolific and confounding musicians all began for me with Faith No More. Such was the appeal I would be forever drawn to anything Mike Patton would do. That’s how I came to be interested in Tomahawk. Oh, and they also happen to have one of my favourite guitarists, the formidable Duane Denison in their ranks. Hard to believe but the band, also featuring drummer John Stanier and bassist Trevor Dunn are now 20 years young and Tonic Immobility is their fifth album. If you are missing the gut punch rock n roll of Faith No More or The Jesus Lizard then Tomahawk are your go to band for your fix. I feel the urge to mention Mr Bungle and Helmet here too, but I cared less for them myself. The trouble with Mike Patton is, there is no quality control with him, when he’s good it’s very very good, but when he’s bad it’s umm, well, you’ll know this already. So what have we got this time?
As with a lot of music being released now, the global pandemic has got in the way, but where there is a will, there is a way. Denison, Stanier and Dunn recorded their parts in various studios around Nashville and Patton laid down the vocals in San Francisco. Duane explains “It’s been a rough year between the Pandemic and everything else. A lot of people feel somewhat powerless and stuck…. For as much as the record possibly reflects that, it’s also an escape from the realities of the world. We’re not wallowing in negativity or getting political. For me, rock has always been an alternate reality to everything else….For me, Tomahawk has always been this special place where we can play hard, heavy music and mix in expressionism with a vocalist who can do anything.”
Mike Patton does indeed have a fierce range of expression. Capable of a soaring croon or a sweet falsetto, but equally happy screaming, howling, grunting or whatever the fuck else he feels the need to do, his attitude can make or break a record, such is the force of his vocals. So for me, Tonic Immobility’s retaining factor is mostly Denison’s guitar as the default vocal setting for Patton is the growl, melody be damned. Opener ‘SHHH!’ is a twitchy psychotic track that grates a scab then angrily picks at it as it fluctuates between roaring riffs and jittery clean picking. ‘Valentine Shine’ has a Gotham City groove with Denison’s trademark chops pinging about as Patton growls and prowls like a manic villain. Essentially a Jesus Lizard song with Yow swapped out for Patton, Denison rules the roost with some angular solos.
Switching into drunk crooner mode Patton sways leeringly on ‘Predators and Scavengers’ before giving that well slicked hair the flicks when he screams the “chorus”. Stanier gets to really whip up a frenzy throughout as Denison snaps wrists with twisty riffs. ‘Doomsday Fatigue’ creepy crawls with Denison picking off some twangy tones. This would have constituted as a ballad in his previous band. A range of weirdo sounds flicker randomly about before the first hook of the album tumbles forth, bringing some light relief (literally too given the lyric). Patton mentions a “Covid Smile”, I think this is the first reference to the basto-virus I’ve heard in recorded material.
The snappy snare cracks that populate ‘Business Casual’ find Dunn in prime form as Denison causes minor palpitations with some stabs of acerbic guitar. His spidery guitar lines shimmer in ‘Tattoo Zero’ and fidgety drum patterns abound as Patton schizophrenically shifts between pervy lounge lizard and wretched soul in the blink of a nervous eyelid. On ‘Fatback’ skittery riffs slip and slide over a drumbeat from a different song as Patton roars “Fatback” incoherently. There’s nothing pleasant about this song and by this stage, the total disregard for giving me something I want to come back to now nipping at my nerves, I’m looking to see how many more tracks there are.
Percussive clicks and pops bring a little light relief in ‘Howlie’ but as ever, the gears shift and there’s a moment of charged metal attack to disturb your toe tapping. But I have to say the riffs here are just plain tired and well, I think one of this generation’s most unique guitar players could do a lot better. The brief ‘Eureka’ allows Stanier to take a break while the rest of the band try some sonic experimentation, with a track that veers into slow motion, but it’s nothing more than a random sketch.
The tender moments of Faith No More are right to the fore on ‘Sidewinder’ as a gorgeous piano allows Patton to sing minus theatrics, the first track to have an actual melody. Denison decides he’s had enough exclusion and cracks in with some angular riffs and one of those soaring guitar lines that punishes eardrums of a delicate nature. This is a lot better but it comes too late in the day for me to save the album from getting a low grade (if we did grades). Could we be doing with a little bit of mishmash genre hopping? Here’s ‘Recoil’ to remedy that with a playful verse that lilts along with a poppy melody and groove. There has to be a manic chorus it seems and sure enough the hardy riffs and skull cracking drums don’t disappoint. Final song ‘Dog Eat Dog’ confusingly chanted as “Eat Dog Eat” finds Patton create a new falsetto persona for the verse. The riffs on the chorus are once again somewhat generic and lacklustre. Having said that, Denison does whip out a classic Lizard-esque riff in the verse to remind you of former glories.
I get to the end of this album feeling somewhat confused. On one hand, it’s bursting with hard rocking riffs, punk energy, tight playing and Patton is as wired as ever. But if you aren’t in the right mood, the essentially brief running time can be something of a chore to get through. Those more forgiving of Patton’s output will probably love it. It’s not a million miles away from the last FNM album. There are glimpses of greatness, but mostly this is a set of songs that seem to exist and none of them are really that essential.