Review Summary: CHAK CHAK CHAK
No phrase in the English language aside from “give me one
minute” or “oh, whatever” annoys me more than “I told you so.” More often than not, I find myself going to great lengths to avoid hearing that dreaded phrase. Yet, there was one time when I accepted “I told you so” with open arms; one time, when I gladly bowed my head in shame and threw up my arms in defeat, declaring with conviction “You guys were right all along…California
is truly a masterpiece.”
While the excellence of California
is no big revelation for some, I often find myself staggered by the amount of time it took for the album to finally click with me. I was first introduced to Mr. Bungle through their eponymous debut, and loved every crazy, off the wall second of it. Disco Volante
, the band’s sophomore release, I found to be almost nearly as enjoyable, displaying Mr. Bungle at the peak of their experimentation; darker and more twisted than ever. After finishing Disco Volante
, I moved on to Mr. Bungle’s critically acclaimed third release, California
. Based on the band’s history of playing whatever the hell they want while never firmly sticking to one sound, I had no idea what to expect from it. Even so, throughout its ten tracks, I found myself confused by the album’s accessibility, confounded by its lack of manic genre-mashing, and frustrated by its overall normality, especially in comparison to the experimental eccentricism of its predecessors. I thought little of the album after it stopped playing, initially dismissing it as nothing more than a crushing disappointment. It wasn’t until months later that I would once again revisit California
, and upon doing so I found myself more disappointed than before. Only this time I was not disappointed with the album’s quality, but with the amount of apology letters I would inevitably have to write to all the people who I knew were going to gleefully shout “I told you so!” directly into my shame-ridden face the next time they saw me. After a mere few months, California
had changed from my least favorite of Mr. Bungle’s catalogue to one of my favorite albums of all time. In hindsight, it’s not difficult to see why.
Despite its accessibility, California
is still undeniably a Mr. Bungle album at heart. Just like Disco Volante
, it strives to alter the band’s formerly established sound in unprecedented ways while never alienating itself from the rest of the band’s discography. California
retains the traits of its predecessors, but in smaller doses. Here, the music is generally quirky, but maintains a level of maturity absent from Mr. Bungle’s other works. The band’s infamous genre-mashing is still present over the course of the album, but is achieved in a much more natural manner and never comes across as random. Perhaps the biggest difference to be found on California
is that each song is focused and concise, conveying one clear idea rather than fifty different ideas crushed together like songs off the band’s first two LPs.
Whereas Mr. Bungle
was rooted in “funk metal” and Disco Volante
in electronic avant-garde, California
is primarily based in old-school or retro music. Several songs on the album, such as “Sweet Charity,” “Golem II: The Bionic Vapor Boy,” and “Pink Cigarette,” display strong influences from mainstream pop, with gentle, upbeat melodies and catchy choruses. On the other hand, “Retrovertigo,” “The Air-Conditioned Nightmare,” and “The Holy Filament” are more in the style of old-school rock ballads, with “The Air-Conditioned Nightmare” even displaying influences from The Beach Boys. Most notable of all are songs “None of Them Knew They Were Robots” and “Vanity Fair,” the former being an epic dance number seemingly ripped from the Roaring Twenties and the latter being a bluesy jazz number. While the album occasionally loses focus, such as with the Middle-Eastern “Ars Moriendi” or the otherworldly enigma that is “Goodbye Sober Day,” it always remains consistently intriguing and enjoyable, as each track brings something surprisingly new to the table.
The accessible nature of California
is in actuality a well-crafted fallacy. Upon scrutinization, it becomes obvious that behind each catchy chorus and upbeat melody lies a deeper meaning. For instance, although “Pink Cigarette” may appear to be a standard pop ballad, by its end it becomes evident that hidden below the song’s melodic exterior is a lovesick suicide note. Similarly, the extremely upbeat “Golem II: The Bionic Vapor Boy” contains some of the most nihilistic lyrics Mr. Bungle have ever written. “Retrovertigo” and “Vanity Fair,” on the other hand, are brilliant societal satires; taking swings at materialism, beauty, and big businesses. Many of the album’s hidden themes are not easily apparent and may take several listens to truly sink in. In fact, with each listen of California
, I notice something about the album I had not before, giving it enormous replay value. Still, some songs here mystify me to this very day, such as closing track “Goodbye Sober Day.” Arguably the most ingenious song in Mr. Bungle’s entire discography, “Goodbye Sober Day” capitalizes on the album’s momentum by being an all-out explosion of eccentricism and horror, jumping from an exotic xylophone melody to fuzzy distortion to ghostly cries until finally culminating in an unforgettable burst of both frenetic tribal chanting and heavy metal. “Goodbye Sober Day” is the perfect final note for Mr. Bungle’s career, remaining true to the sound established on California
while nevertheless harkening back to the band’s previous releases.
Over time, California
has grown on me like no other. Initially, I was so taken aback by its accessibility that I failed to notice the amount of depth and sheer creativity behind each song. The genius of Mike Patton’s songwriting is in full-force here, with Patton delivering the greatest and most versatile vocal performance of his entire career. Despite that, for some, California
is a slow-burner; one that requires complete immersion in order to fully appreciate both the album’s beauty and subtleties alike. If you don’t enjoy the album on your first listen, I implore you to give it another shot until it sinks in. That way, I
can finally be the one saying “I told you so.”