Call it the return of a supergroup, if you must, or call it the return of a collection of dudes known for their ability in the field of diversity, their wrangling of each other, and their ideas before shuttling off to other bands/projects for a further easing on the creative output pressure valve. Which, when you think about it, is the oft-unstated, backroom purpose of the supergroup in the first place.
Either way, Duane Denison, Mike Patton, Trevor Dunn, and John Stanier are back under the Tomahawk banner for a fifth go ‘round, seven years after their previous gathering ‘round the ol’ Fostex gleaned Oddfellows. The broad sweeping capabilities of this club’s membership should come as little surprise, even to those not fans of The Jesus Lizard, Faith No More, Helmet, or Mr. Bungle. This, in turn, means there are folks out there unfamiliar with that list of alt-rock/metal/punk heroism and more aware of the quartet’s adventures in jazz, lounge, avant-garde, cow-punk, and whatever the indescribable math-rock heck of Battles. The point here is that when these four chaps get together, the sky’s the limit, regardless of which end of the binoculars you’re looking through. Someone’s going to be taken aback, boundaries are going to be traversed and some novel, strange and foreign sound is going to make its way down the pipeline into the earholes of the listening public.
One of the ways in which Tomahawk stands out, refines, redefines, and separates itself from the broader populace’s idea of what constitutes a supergroup is how the marquee name isn’t the dominating presence. Sure, Mike Patton can create an engaging vocal line over the weirdest of musical sequences (on “Predators and Scavengers” he sounds like a demented angel deliberately singing flat over a Cows album transposed into a major key) and has a linguistic knack that would have old-timers referring to him as a ‘wise-acre’ (“Tattoo Zero” has pure gold in the form of “Faces down in the dirty lust/In the testicles of the country dust” over a strained spaghetti western chime), but his bandmates are no shrinking violets. Guitarist Duane Denison demonstrates skill at juggling the force-feeding of movie soundtracks into Danelectro pedals and Lollapalooza’s original spirited angst. Trevor Dunn provides a warm and slinky, yet sinister, thumping swagger. And anything that John Stanier sits behind is going to be festooned with a solid zip-lock groove. In fact, legend has it that metronome manufactures calibrate their products to Stanier’s lockdown meter and timing. True story. Many people are saying it.
From the off, the collective’s transformational competence and adeptness at blurring distinctive black-and-white borders are put on display. “SHHH!” is simultaneously chilling and creepy, like the little girl from The Ring holding hands with Pennywise behind Twin Peaks’ Double R diner before someone changes the channel to a BBC4 program where Therapy? are performing and explaining to a room full of kids and sock puppets what rock music is. “Howlie” has everyone getting in touch with their punk rock temperaments and buttresses a Helmet-like chorus up against the sort of moody film noir clang which visualizes tuxedoed robber barons taking elongated pulls off unfiltered cigs in lavish dining halls where the chandeliers are as bright as the ball gowns.
On the other hand, even more drastic swings exist. For instance, “Valentine Shine” sexes up the vibe of Voivod’s Killing Technology with some smoky rhythm section gyration acting as a counterpoint to the gnashing guitars, “Fatback” has Patton matching the fast, single-note shuffle with a scatting delivery and “Sidewinder” commences with minimalist alt-lounge where the vocal phrasing propels the sonic narrative to where riffs kick in living up to the song’s title before downshifting to something reminiscent of those moments on Angel Dust that gave label executives (and their bloated expense accounts) nightmares back in 1992.
The diamond that emerges from the coal crushing comes in the form of “Business Casual” —a culmination of the recognized talents of everyone involved where Patton’s twisted wordsmithing (“Let your gut sag to the love shack…Whiskey dick/with a homemade vasectomy”) goes yard, linguistically, and finds its way around precision drumming, a heart-thumping bass drive and Jesus Lizard guitars filtered through 30 years and five bands.
If there’s a downside to Tonic Immobility it’s that the album suffers when it comes to the sort of cohesive flow normally created by ebbs and flows. Each song exists as its own genre blender and defying entity, but with high and diverse bars set with each song, the connective tissue between start and finish is brittle, especially should one choose to study the album from a holistic, meta-perspective. However, if that’s all there is to nitpick and complain about, you are fully justified in commanding me to staple my yap shut and just enjoy. And I’d absolutely agree with you.