Finally--after a toxic and incapacitating encounter with a roadside daiquiri stand in New Orleans and a subsequent series of rescheduled and missed interviews--Fantomas frontman Mike Patton and I are discussing the band's newest CD, Delirium Cordia.
"To me, this is an easy-listening record," he says. "It's not horrifying; it's beautiful. That's just the way I hear it. But I'm obviously in the minority. What the hell do I know?"
While I have the distinct impression that Patton is, in fact, highly intelligent, I agree his analysis seems a bit off. Delirium Cordia (Latin for "irregular heartbeat") is much more accurately described as uneasy listening: a 74-minute, one-track soundscape thematically driven by Patton's fascination with explicit surgical photography--specifically the work of Boston photographer Max Helwig. "A few years ago I stumbled upon a book of his and it fucking blew my head off," recalls Patton. "I never forgot it. Much, much later--when it came to the point where I realized I needed some strong imagery to make this piece work--I wrote [Helwig] a letter." Helwig gave Patton permission to use several graphic photos in the album artwork--an aesthetic choice that heightens the horror of listening to the eerie opus unfold.
I made the mistake (or as Patton might say, "the wise choice") of giving Cordia a cursory spin while home alone on a dark and windy evening. With nothing but Patton's mad visions to keep me company, I felt as if I were being punk'd by John Carpenter and Wes Craven. Childlike pianos tinkled and dwindled to unnerving, singular notes; shards of metal scraped and crashed inexplicably; foreshadowing choral singers wailed with disorienting urgency; and soon I was waiting for a pack of rabid clowns to show up on my front porch, grinning and eager to sodomize me.
And, really, I don't scare too easily.
Patton's radar may be faulty when it comes to estimating his music's impact, but his instincts for selecting musical collaborators are impeccable. Joining him in this operatic nightmare are Melvins guitarist Buzz Osborne, Mr. Bungle bassist and John Zorn collaborator Trevor Dunn, and Slayer drummer Dave Lombardo, arguably one of the finest percussionists ever to walk the earth. Patton remains Fantomas' singular conductor and composer, but the presence of such strong, talented co-conspirators gives him a great deal of creative latitude. "I met [Patton] at the last Faith No More show in Los Angeles," says Lombardo, "and a few months later he called me and asked me to listen to the [Fantomas demo]. I felt in touch with what he was trying to do right away."
After releasing an eponymous debut in 1999 with minimal fanfare, Fantomas gained significant momentum with 2001's The Director's Cut, a collection of horror-film soundtrack covers. Patton's baffling vocal range was beautifully suited to avant-garde interpretations of everything from the Twin Peaks theme to the titular song from The Omen's soundtrack. The accompanying live show (documented on 2002's Millennium Monsterwork) earned them even more fans.
With the release of Delirium Cordia earlier this year, Patton reveals the long-term effects of working with like-minded musicians who are happy to go along for the ride. "When I wrote the first record, I was just hoping I'd find four guys insane enough to even try this ridiculous music," Patton says, laughing. "Once I watched them devour it, I knew that a monster was being born and I realized these guys could do anything! I would have never attempted a record like this new one if I didn't know that. And the more that I can stretch what these guys do, the better it's gonna be for the band, the more interesting music we can make."
What some might call "interesting easy-listening" others might call "frustrating, impenetrable ambience," especially since Cordia closes with more than 20 minutes of near-silence, a fact that Patton acknowledges--just barely. "It's demanding in the sense that it's one track and it might not be the most user-friendly CD in the world, but there's another way to look at it, you know? Put it on and go vacuum the house! How much easier could it be?" HANNAH LEVIN Fantomas play w/Melt-Banana Sunday April 18 at Roseland, NW 6th & Burnside.