Is there anything Mike Patton won’t try? My own limited collection of his music includes traditional Italian pop (Mondo Cane), off-kilter alt-rock (Tomahawk), a live album of avant-garde sludge (Millennium Monsterwork 2000), artsy chamber music inspired by Romantic era composers (Romances), and whatever he and John Zorn are doing on The Crucible. There are albums I prefer over others in his discography, which is the case with any prolific artist. But at the very least, you have to give him credit for the fearless and innovative approach he’s taken to his music since debuting with Faith No More and Mr. Bungle. To pivot from such acclaimed, popular metal bands (both experimental in their own right) and dive headfirst into the world of avant-garde music takes guts and creative conviction.
Unsurprisingly, another year puts a new Patton project or album on my radar. And as is usually the case with his albums, it was the unusual description for necroscape that ignited my interest. Patton and composer Anthony Pateras launched tētēma as a duo with Geocidal (2014), pairing Patton’s free-wheeling vocal explorations with electroacoustic and generally experimental electronic landscapes. In the years since, the group has expanded to a quartet with the additions of Erkki Veltheim (violin, mandolin) and drummer Will Guthrie (drums), which helps expand the sonic palette on necroscape significantly.
The only track on necroscape with a clear stylistic focus is closer “Funerale Di Un Contadino.” The group offers an unsettling arrangement of a Brazilian folk classic by Chico Buarque and Ennio Morricone. Patton exercises the personality and precision he brings to all his non-English tracks, contributing to a track that feels both romantic and nefarious.
That said, the preceding tracks on necroscape explore entirely different territory. The title track opens the album with calm before the storm, as Patton croons lightly over piano and a faint synthetic atmosphere. Then “Cutlass Eye” reveals the album’s true intentions, as Pateras unleashes noisy, industrial blasts underneath a roaring Patton. As soon as you draw comparisons to the likes of Author & Punisher, the track’s ferocity gives way to wobbling synths and faint, wailing vocals. The band’s short attention span remain a consistent theme across necroscape, which doesn’t affect cohesions so much as it creates a persistent feeling of intrigue at what ideas might surface next.
Case in point, “Wait Till Mornin'” takes a synthetic approach to mystic themes, almost like the the incantations of a cyborg shaman, only to be followed by another bout of industrial aggression with “Haunted on the Uptake.” The electronics and sequencing feel reminiscent of Xiu Xiu‘s recent work on Girl with Basket of Fruit (2019), except with a rock backbone recognizable to those familiar with Patton’s work. “All Signs Uncensored” somewhat combines these two approaches, as a variety of musical motifs flash over intense tribal drumming. Patton delivers one of his best vocal performances on the album, including multiple spitting, snarling outbursts that have become a signature element of his more avant-garde works.
The group only explores stranger territory as the album progresses. “Milked Out Million” features a nice flourish of Veltheim’s violin over a generally dismal soundscape, as if he’s playing a eulogy for the aforementioned cyborg shaman malfunctioning in an alleyway. Guthrie takes a turn in the spotlight on “Soliloquy” as he demolishes his kit while Pateras plays an overwhelming cascade of blipping electronics. Later on, Guthrie lays down more structured but still expressive drumming on “We’ll Talk Inside a Dream,” arguably the most “complete” track on the album. Finally, before the album’s true sendoff with “Funerale,” Pateras unleashes a full-blown industrial noise track with minimal input from Patton, providing the perfect counterbalance to the album’s melodic send-off.
It’s hardly surprising to hear another Patton album that bends genres and expectations. Yet, that anticipation of an offbeat experience typically manifests into refreshed fascination with the music itself, something on full display throughout necroscape. Patton and Patera were wise to expand tētēma to a quartet; in particular, the addition of a dedicated percussionist infuses new energy into their sonic explorations. The intersection of industrial, experimental rock, and Patton’s singular presence creates a unique bricolage of sounds that remains enthralling through its unconventional finale. I doubt “electroacoustic rock” will become its own subgenre anytime soon, but in the meantime, tētēma are more than capable of executing this synthesis of styles in a way all their own.
necroscape is available now via Ipecac Recordings.