Review Summary: Best metal album since Sunbather.
When did Mike Patton grow up?
Don’t you dare answer that - it would be a disservice to Tomahawk’s long-awaited(?) comeback Tonic Immobility
, a record stuck so firmly in the past that superimposing any kind of long-run character progression or maturity chart would feel like a false metric. This record’s spiritual release date is something in the region of 2005, as the follow-up to 2003’s rock scorcher Mit Gas
. It’s a high-(but not too high!)-octane showcase of Patton’s talents and the rest of his alternative-noise-rock supergroup’s alike: what an opportune day for anyone eager to hear him kick up sparks alongside the Jesus Lizard’s Duane Denison (guit.), Helmet’s John Stanier (dr.) and All Of New York Experimental Music’s Trevor Dunn (bass) like the last decade-and-a-half had been wiped clean off the slate. That will probably be most of us; it’s not like that timespan has been particularly exciting for Tomahawk. 2013’s Oddfellows
was an undercooked snooze and while 2007’s Anonymous
was a genuinely interesting reworking of traditional Native American melodies, it had as much replay value as yesterday’s roadkill. Whether you count these albums as missteps or worthwhile detours, Tomahawk are now back where they were always meant to be: in the mid-’00s, at the helm of ultra-snide fat-free battery-acid semi-feral rock bruisers.
In other words, Tonic Immobility
is a suspiciously comfortable trip down memory lane. Perhaps foolishly, this is the last thing I expected from a Patton project in 2021; in an almost disturbingly relaxed interview with Eric Andre last year, he was all too happy to wax irreverent about discarding the legacy of Mr. Bungle, holy cow to music nerds of all walks and waistlines, into a meet-your-heroes homage to good ol’ rusty thrash metal. Tonic Immobility
walks that attitude briskly back into the same sordid narrations and performative inflections he’s been sneering and howling for years before Tomahawk ever existed. Sure, he drops the occasional nod at twerking or Covid because #zeitgeist, but for the most part he clings so faithfully to a version of his style that has hardly changed in over twenty years. Denison sits in a similar boat; outside of Anonymous
, I’m not convinced he’s laid down anything on a Tomahawk record that advances on his heyday with the Jesus Lizard, and this record is no exception.
Credit where it’s due, the pair are formidable performers and a rhythm section made up of Dunn and Stanier is one to starve for. The band may draw from an unchanged toolkit, but their chops are as sharp as ever and they dish out flashpoints like no-one’s business: “Tattoo Zero” kicks off from a grotty bar number into a deliciously warped polymetrical freakout, “Recoil” trades off Patton’s catchier hooks against beefy King For A Day…
-esque riffs with bubbly relish, and opener “SSSH!” is as barnstorming a revival of the Tomahawk fundamentals as any you could hope for. However, there are points where I struggle to find the thrill in that formula, whether it’s a snarky Patton-patented two-line hook (“Business Casual”), a Goat
-worshipping slugger (“Fatback”), or a noirish slowburner more rife with deja vu than a TV sunrise (“Doomsday Fatigue”). These are old-hat, and the band’s occasionally plain songwriting makes it no secret that they could churn these out like spare daydreams. It’s no coincidence that the album’s strongest track, “Sidewinder”, is the only one on which both Patton’s profane character acting and the band’s writing approach finds itself developed beyond the scope of past tropes. The song hits a volatile peak, only to stop in its tracks and reverse into an unexpectedly vicious barrage of jibes pointed firmly in the direction of overentitled ne’er-do-wells. It’s juxtaposed with a surprisingly stirring background, sombre and dramatic enough to fit right into Twin Peaks. It’s inspired and provocative and thoroughly engaging in a way no-one else could have milked for quite the same level of entertainment.
has all too few moments on this level of audacity. It’s a competent album, fun and succinct enough for a worthwhile playthrough but too full of yesterday’s novelty to shrug off the why here? why now?
concerns destined to orbit any comeback record. Individual listeners will find their own ways to make peace with this, but I struggle to view it as more than a back-to-basics top-up from an act that had very little to prove. Blessed and cursed with a handful of the most talented names in rock, it’s equal parts a welcome return and a missed opportunity. The album’s final gag is brutally reflective of this: We are Tomahawk, and we approve this message
asserts Patton in deadpan is so resolute that I’m reasonably confident it would have made multiple humans laugh out loud had it been delivered at the turn of the century. Time is a cruel mistress.