Under the Wire

The often dubbed supergroup Fantomas have been plugging away at their bizarre brand of avant-garde metal for over five years now. Vocalist Mike Patton conceived the group, and then went out and recruited some of the more luminous names in the metal world to fill up the spots. Buzz Osborne from the Melvins on guitar, Slayer's Dave Lombardo on drums, and Trevor Dunn from Patton's old group, Mr. Bungle, on bass, an impressive cast of characters to say the least.

Critics and fans alike were scratching their heads just trying to absorb the material on their self-titled first album when it came out in 1999 (on Patton's label, Ipecac Recordings). Described as a soundtrack to a nonexistent comic book, each track was a different page and combined some of the most dynamic and crushing metal parts overlaid with Patton's barking, screaming and wailing­­-i.e., not a single discernible word. You always hear singers of rock bands saying shit like, "I like to think of my voice as another instrument in the band," maybe to make themselves seem more artistic, but in the case of Patton's work in Fantomas, that's exactly the case. His grunts and screeches work more like a percussive instrument than anything else.

In 2001's The Director's Cut, a collection of movie soundtrack songs from films such as Cape Fear and Rosemary's Baby are reworked as only Fantomas could do them-heavily rocking, and always completely strange. Delirium Cordia of 2004 consists of one very expansive ambient track, best described as the soundtrack to a very creepy surgical tragedy. So it seems soundtracks of some sort are a common theme among Fantomas albums, even though the material is all over the place. I was excited to check out the new album, Suspended Animation-a cartoonish soundtrack and homage to cartoon music composers of the past.

Needless to say, this album delivers the goods and has quickly become my favorite Fantomas work thus far. More akin to the stop and start metallic attack of their first album, Suspended Animation sounds like it came from the brain of a schizophrenic child on a wicked sugar high. Chock full of samples from old cartoons and childish instruments like toy xylophones and music boxes, it is truly an erratic masterpiece.

The album is laid out like a calendar, with each song a different day in the month of April, 2005. The material was recorded almost two years ago at the same time as Delirium Cordia, for a studio session guitarist Osborne describes as "very weird, a long time in a studio." His comment makes perfect sense, as the two albums couldn't be more different from one another, the new album consisting of 30 rather short, frenetic tracks. Not having seen a Fantomas show before, I'm very curious as to how they can pull off this maniacally twisted material live. I had a chance to speak with guitarist Buzz and he assured me, "It is very difficult to play ... very, extremely difficult." So difficult he has to have an extensive set list to refer to in order to remember all the numerous guitar parts. It's something akin to a crazy orchestra with Patton as the conductor.

For those less familiar with Mike Patton's work, you probably remember him as the weirdo vocalist for Faith No More back in the '90s, his most commercially successful band. Since their breakup, and more recently the breakup of Mr. Bungle, Patton has been a very busy man. Described as both the greatest rock vocalist of our time and the most overrated hack simultaneously (depending on who you talk to), Patton has been involved in projects over the past few years as varied as Japanese noise, pseudo-lounge and hip hop. Fantomas, however, is distinctly his band, as he writes and arranges all of the music, with little input from the other members. Patton's legion of loyal fans, or as Buzz describes them, "creepy sycophant fans," seem to worship the guy like he's god's gift to music. Apparently, mainly obsessed with his earlier work in FNM and Mr. Bungle, Osborne reminds the public Patton quit those bands, and he didn't quit because he was having such a great time. Obsessive nerds aside, Fantomas is one of the strangest bands around, and should remind listeners nothing of Faith No More.

Commercial success is truly not the goal of this band. In fact, they seem to be deliberately avoiding it. "We operate under the wire. We're not really concerned with what's popular these days," Buzz said. I find his ethos quite refreshing-a band creating music they want to (well, what Patton wants to), without record sales and MTV exposure as the ultimate goal. Fantomas is a groundbreaking musical entity whose material will undoubtedly be puzzled over for years to come.

Fantomas play Sunday, April 24 at the Big Easy Concert House, 7:30 p.m., $19.50.

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