A dark-snarling-rocker, avant-garde-artiste-extraordinaire, maniacally-grinning crooner, possessed of a sinister disposition and an undulating, catlike movement — these are all terms that accurately describe Bay Area native Mike Patton. Outside of the impressive trail that he and his bandmates in alt-metal band Faith No More blazed, through early 90s metal and the foundations of heavier alternative music, Patton has always been dabbling in sonic experiments and new forms of performance, and the extent of his craft is all but belied by Faith No More’s marvelous, but definitely accessible, compositions. Patton, of course, is not the only creative force within his various endeavors, and has spent most of his projects with bassist Trevor Dunn, in bands such as Mr. Bungle and the John Zorn-spearheaded Moonchild Trio. Dunn has now joined the ranks of the indescribable-yet-definitely-dark-and-thrashy Tomahawk, formed by Patton and Jesus Lizard guitarist Duane Denison, and the result is a tough-as-nails blast of energy and mesmerizing chemistry in an onstage performance — all the sensation of the insane chaos of the pair’s less accessible work, coupled with enough familiar songwriting techniques to draw in the more discerning of music fans.
For those Pattonites who were fervent lovers of the musicians’ more chaos-addled work, opening act Retox provided 35 minutes of earsplitting, hair-pulling, muscle-tearing insanity, ripping through a set of over 20 violent, snarling hardcore punk tracks in little more than a half hour. “Harcode punk”, while perhaps more a pigeonhole than anything else — for the short but explosive set was filled to bursting with blasts of grind metal, deafening white-noise feedback, mathy rhythms, and slow stompers — is definitely the best term to pick for their sound, so reminiscent were they of early, violent works by bands like Converge, Botch, and Aus Rotten. Frontman Justin Pearson was a whirling dervish of pure mayhem from the second each song tore its way into existence, twisting himself into knots and throwing himself back and forth across their small stage space, all the while howling like a dying hyena set aflame. The rest of the band, while offering the role of the manic frontman to their vocalist with little persuasion, were nevertheless equally feral in their own onstage antics. By the end of the set, some of those watching the band were nearly out of breath from astonishment over the display of unyielding, violent energy that had just unfolded before them.
While Tomahawk didn’t open up their set with anything nearly as face-melting as the previous musical half hour that had transpired before them, the roar and ecstatic push of the crowd undermined anything experienced while Retox had been onstage. The dynamic of the energy onstage instantly shifted, as well; where Retox’s Pearson had been a hurricane of borderline-psychotic energy, mildly tempered by his also-thrashing bandmates, Patton completely eclipsed his bandmates from the moment the band ripped into “Flashback”, the first song of their set and of debut, self-titled album. The microphone, its stand, and the stage below him became Patton’s personal performance tools, his body warping and bending about as he pulled his onlookers in through each note of the set. He was mesmerizing to behold, moving from a sinuous crawl to a thunderstorm of roars, bugged-out eyes, and violently shaking limbs, as each song shifted mood and scope.
Had Tomahawk been entirely composed of violent entities like Patton, it would have been nearly impossible to catch all of the action. In contrast, Denison held down the dancing rhythms, hellish riffs, and stoic precision that gave Tomahawk’s songs their full vitality, while Patton became the inhuman force that ripped its way through the songs and attempted to build something with their pieces. Dunn, taking residence opposite Denison on the other end of the stage, stayed in a small area, but regularly hurled himself fully into the fray when the moment called for it. Drummer John Stanier, eclipsed in shadows and hidden behind Patton for nearly all of the set, was nonetheless the heavy-hitting-but-remarkably-precise backbone of the group, building foundations for each piece with Denison while backing the tidal wave of the wildly-gesticulating vocalist before him. All four moved with their own form of grace, each major song moment marked by a collective forward blast of energy, locking their performance into one of deadly and brilliant precision.
For nearly the entire length of their set, Tomahawk’ alternated equally between songs from their self titled debut, their sophomore record Mit Gas, and their newly-released Oddfellows, with the latter release claiming the biggest portion of the set. The new compositions blended seamlessly with the old, despite possessing a general sense of complexity and maturity that contrasted with the more feral aspects of the first records’ pieces, and the crowd responded with equal fervor to works both old and new. The set plowed through at a remarkable pace, even with Patton taking numerous moments to address his onlookers, providing many snide, deprecating remarks to the assembled cult of fans before them. For their encore, the quartet hurled a curve ball into their mostly-simple set with “Totem”, a cut from their decidedly-more-experimental release Anonymous, and “Just One More”, an old-time country ballad by the great George Jones, to bring the night to a close. Patton looked just as enthusiastic as he was amused to bring the set to an end this way, and he and the band slunk from the stage to a chorus of howling, joyous screams.
I have been no stranger to the work of Mike Patton and Trevor Dunn, having seen numerous acts by both, including Faith No More, Peeping Tom, Moonchild, and Secret Chiefs 3, but Tomahawk, so close to the music of Faith No More and the inner id of Patton’s debut foray, Mr. Bungle, has always held a special place for me. The combination of wicked melodies and complex-but-accessible rhythms, coupled with the mindbending insanity of Patton, has always made Tomahawk’s music incredibly intriguing, and their live performance does not disappoint. Even with all his remarks, Patton seemed to be incredibly delighted to be onstage within his stomping ground of San Francisco, and poured every ounce of himself into his performance, with his other bandmates lending their own energy to back him up marvelously. With Oddfellows freshly new in existence, it remains to be seen whether Patton will continue his sonic assault on audience as the year continues, but if he does, a repeat performance by Tomahawk will not be a thing to miss.
Additional photos from the show below. All photos © 2013 Jonathan Pirro.