The first two Tomahawk records were the closest Mike Patton got to making straightforward rock music since his Faith No More days. Consider Tomahawk’s third album, Anonymous, a hasty retreat from accessibility and toward the surreal, English-free conceptualism of his Fantomas records. All but one track on the album is based on a melody that guitarist Duane Denison (ex-Jesus Lizard) found in a turn-of-the-century book of Native American songs. About half of them have no English lyrics, and most contain the “hey-ya” chants and tribal thudding that we associate with the music of indigenous North Americans, combined with the bizarre production quirks that we associate with the music of Mike Patton.
Anonymous was conceived as a corrective to all the bland country blues and new-age music that Denison heard Native American bands play during a tour of Indian reservations with Hank Williams III. The idea itself is ripe with possibilities: The title Anonymous might honor the nameless many that contributed to this music throughout history, and it also suggests how the reservation system continues to poach the very identities of Native Americans.
Too bad that Denison, Patton and drummer John Stanier (of Battles and formerly of Helmet) take the easy way out. Anonymous suffers from a lack of clear purpose. What might have been a tribute to a culture whose ancestral music is slowly being forgotten becomes yet another excuse for Mike Patton to run amok. He smothers the melodies of “War Song” and “Omaha Dance” with the same ambient synthesizers, clanking samples and wacko vocal spasms that he brings to everything that he’s ever done. Denison and Stanier laid down their guitar and drums tracks before Patton got involved; I wonder whether the album would have been more emotionally powerful if he hadn’t touched it.
There are some great moments on Anonymous, mostly resulting from Tomahawk’s mastery of mood. The somber “Ghost Dance” marches forward like a walk to the gallows, the jaunty “Song of Victory” has the alien kookiness of Deerhoof’s “Giga Dance,” and the down-tempo Tricky groove of “Mescal Rite 2” is genuinely creepy. But we already knew that Patton could do the funny, weird and dark combo from his work with Mr. Bungle and Fantomas. Anonymous comes across as an elaborate mood piece with slightly different melodies than the myriad other mood pieces in Patton’s catalog. It teaches us nothing about the source material, which should have been the focus here, and reveals a lopsided division of labor that doesn’t suit Tomahawk well; whereas Denison’s amazing riff-writing bolstered the band’s first two albums, his contributions here are obscured by Patton’s vocals and production. Anonymous is a sonically immaculate yet disappointingly hollow album, and following a year after the release of his limp-dick Peeping Tom project, it suggests that Mike Patton is running out of fresh ideas.