Mr. Bungle - Disco Volante
or better or worse, we here at Stylus, in all of our autocratic consumer-crit greed, are slaves to timeliness. A record over six months old is often discarded, deemed too old for publication, a relic in the internet age. That's why each week at Stylus, one writer takes a look at an album with the benefit of time. Whether it has been unjustly ignored, unfairly lauded, or misunderstood in some fundamental way, we aim with On Second Thought to provide a fresh look at albums that need it.
Mr. Bungle’s “The Bends” is a string of ambient pieces that narrate the journey of a diver getting cut off from his boat and then sinking to his demise in a deep-sea trench. However, there is one segment that has haunted me for ten years to this week, and I do not want it to stop. The piece, “Aqua Swing” begins as a cartoon. The San Francisco band first awakens with a rubber-band synth noise that causes a bass violin to stumble out of bed and a harpsichord to draw the curtain. A bebop riff chimes in from the back of the room, and then the bassline begins to cast the spell. Every time I hear that damn piano that follows, I’m thrown onto the dancefloor throwing down drinks, tables, and patrons. The delirious melodies nearly outgun Cecil Taylor when he treats his keys as a drumset with actual sticks. Mr. Bungle suddenly halts as a 5 a.m. prayer call to Allah is heard outside. Mike Patton then continues the swing and imbues it with soul in his gentle scat that clenches a dagger behind the back—his voice floats in the evening while the band swats at him. The song then abruptly ends with a vintage sound effect of a villain disappearing in a smoke cloud. The too-few minutes of “Aqua Swing” was the first time that I heard jazz that saw reality titled at 45 degrees. In other words, it proved to me that jazz could indeed be surreal, instead of merely being on display at the Smithsonian.
Disco Volante was perhaps the first explicitly experimental album I heard. The group took my 16-year-old imagination to an alien terrain, filled with grotesqueries like angler fish and viper fish, no sunlight for miles, and no chance of staying alive if one ever tried to swim to the surface. Besides the gothic mystique that took cues from HG Wells and 19th century science fiction, the band also delved into a soundworld that seemed arcane, but is more hallucinogenic than retro. “The Bends” perfectly replicated the tacky, but still eerie-as-hell sound effects and musical scores heard in countless 60’s sci-fi and horror flicks. A Merzbow-style sandblast of white noise later washes away all corn and damages human health in the process. There’s also the coda of “Carry Stress in the Jaw” where the band locks into a Cramps-style surfer groove and someone aping Grandpa Simpson chiming in. Or “Backstrokin,’” whose opening flute tone play is more vibrant than that in the Beatles’ “Revolution, No.9” before moving into further intoxicated enchantment under the sea with a lounge-jazz number. That song ends with Patton muttering curses over a guitar that mews out a somber melody. The Spanish soap opera number heavily indebted to Morricone, “Violenza Domestica” is utter camp, but it can’t mask Patton’s wife-beater’s assurances that everything will be all right, amid a construction site of a cacophony outside a window. I was already a fan of Patton when he seemed like the coolest skate-punk/lone high school weirdo in Faith No More. Patton himself eschewed his FNM rasp and proved to be alt-rock’s most versatile vocalist—shifting from Cro-Magnon growls, blue-eyed croons, cartoon blurts, and hyperventilating scats. Given that most of the music I heard at the time was either sold to me by MTV or hardcore punk bands with legacies pre-cooked for consumption, Disco Volante was equivalent to waking up in a foreign country with no money and little hope of learning the native tongue.
Of course, I didn’t like everything I heard. There were a few songs that I could not listen to without winching. The band’s zest for skipping across a dozen genres within one song—often throwing in thrash-metal assaults seemingly thrown in for the hell of it—gave me headaches. I fast-forwarded through the bulk of the album closer, “Merry Go Bye Bye,” where they dump a grind-metal excursion into a garbage disposal. It’s the same way that Mr. Bungle’s 1991 eponymous commercial debut often annoyed me, where the primarily ska band channel-surfed itself through genres. Their Howard Stern-ian outlook on human mating, the female sex and excretion (i.e. Patton’s simulated diarrhea attack) was also a bit much. However, the band was on to something with the finale, “Dead Goon.” Under John Zorn’s production, they narrated a death and ascension to heaven through Patton’s croaks with a modern-jazz rhythm section hovering above.
A decade later, Disco Volante still sounds daring. My ears have received enough damage from noisicians with laptops and white noise generators, that I can now tolerate more of Disco Volante’s discord. The album’s strengths are stronger and weaknesses more annoying. The Danny Elfman-goes-Latin zinger, “Chemical Marriage” is still a gas, alongside the apocalyptic Country & Western opening of “Merry Go Bye Bye,” but the throwaways haven’t increased in value at all. The sludge-metal opener, “Everyone I Went To High School With Is Dead” still seems to be meant to scare away newcomers as the shoddiest in execution is poisoned with gangrene, while “After School Special” is a ballad that still doesn’t find the humor in child abuse (there is none). But it’s to be expected, Disco Volante is an album that illustrates a fantasy world only they, and a cult, could fully understand. It’s the finest sort of San Francisco art-rock: right in line with the Residents’ Eskimo, the Thinking Fellers Union Local 282’s Mother of All Saints, Caroliner Rainbow distributing their records in diapers and used pizza boxes, and DJ Disk’s Phonosycographdisk. Perhaps it is the countless hours hiding under bedsheets and garages, away from the fog and the freezing Pacific air, that forces the escapism.
I, for one, would never want to return outside.
By: Cameron Macdonald
Published on: 2005-11-30