“Release in the time of COVID” ought be the name of a documentary account of either:
a) the deadly sins in which we engage in order to find pleasure in the various states of lockdown or restriction we’ve found ourselves subject to over the past year; or
b) the increase in musical output from many artists during the same period.
Mike Patton and Trevor Dunn, fresh from last year’s absolute treat of a thrash album “The Raging Wrath of the Easter Bunny” are engaged in unleashing another fine musical document, Tomahawk’s just released “Tonic Immobility.” Your Grouchy Friend is unable to speak for the sinful proclivities of Patton and Dunn, but certainly can confirm the appropriate application of option b above as it pertains to them.
In recent discussions with the band there have been confirmations that with regard the pandemic timeline, Duane Denison (guitars) had actually written much of the music in the years previous so it seems a confluence of opportunity for other band members, in particular Patton has led to the completion of the album during these “troubled times.” Whatever the situation that has afforded us “Tonic Immobility,” we should be thankful: it is an album of clarity, strength and precision. Whilst it won’t be for everyone, it will no doubt appeal to a wide variety of listeners and shoot very near the top of long time fans’ appraisals of what is their best album.
The album slides into to your DMs in fine Tomahawk fashion with a percussive, muted, slap-backed guitar gnawing away right from the start with the irrepressible sense of dread the band have traditionally used build tension. The release it transitions to is a thing of overdriven beauty… and we are away. “Spill your secrets…” Patton demands and pleads in equal measure. “SHHH!” is an example of Tomahawk quickly displaying that they are at their best and truly does get better with every listen. The song takes a hatchet (pun intended) to the lead singles in terms of quality. A brilliant opener.
Denison is a man who is in complete control of his tones and has been since he rose to prominence with The Jesus Lizard – a niche guitar hero if ever there was one. His sonic palette is extremely particular, and crucial to the definition of the character of each composition. One of the things that struck me about Tomahawk from inception was the success they had in establishing a highly idiosyncratic sound and it is Duane Denison who played a huge part in establishing that sound. There is some validity in suggesting this can be a double edged sword that breeds excessive familiarity in the negative, yet cuts straight to the chase for fans. The appeal of “Tonic Immobility” was a little restricted as a result, which likely won’t be of issue to dedicated, flat-out-fans or those unfamiliar with their earlier work.
Rolling bass, resplendent in tasty tube-driven glory announces “Valentine Shine” and drags us straight into even deeper water – Trevor Dunn it must be said has long been a Grouchy favourite as a bass player and adds great weight to the album. The building menace is there again with Dunn and Stanier’s (Helmet / Battles – drums) water tight rhythm section a submersible glass cage and Denison’s stabs of oblique guitar flashing in cracks of danger from the murk. This time Patton feels wilder and more lyrically engaged… circling in the pulsing and dark waters like a great white ready to tear the listener apart. Possibly the best track on the album, this one is a gem and a testament to the fine production skills of the band and co-conspirator Paul Allen: Crisp clarity and presence in an airy sound stage, juxtaposed with immediate and up-front saturated distortion and drive. Dread and danger resolving to an inevitable attack that builds to a satisfying cacophony.
Latest single “Predators and Scavengers” is nothing if not inventive. A broad pastiche of some well worked Tomahawkisms, this may be track (along with “Doomsday Fatigue” which immediately follows) at which some may feel the need to depart the listening experience. Objectively a strong piece of material and solidly indicative of the band’s established sound, it ticks a lot of boxes without feeling quite on the level of the album’s highest points.
“Doomsday Fatigue” is the first instance of the hit and miss nature of the lyrical content of the album – at times a little cringeworthy – unless you count yourself a Patton devotee. Similarly, the chorus of “Business Casual” feels a little jarring and forced, perhaps indicative of the separation involved in a writing process that reportedly was completed by band members quite separately – particularly vocal and music. The lead single was well received it seems, but honestly didn’t hit the mark for Your Grouchy Friend. Although the opinion is unlikely to bring the endearment of fans, the individual elements on this song just don’t come together in the way the better songs on the album do. If you are a fan of the lead single, then take that opinion as all the more reason to get yourself comfy for a deep listen to the album as a whole because there is plenty afoot that renders “Business Casual” almost as vanilla as the look for which it is named.
“Fatback,” “Howlie,” “Sidewinder” and “Recoil“ all have a very self-referential feel when one has familiarity with the back catalogue of the band. In some ways the idea of being able to listen to “Tonic Immobility” without existing frames of reference is a very appealing one – what would be the impact of some of the excellent passages in these songs without the sense of being overly familiar with them even as heard for the first time? This reflection shouldn’t be read as too disparaging: there is little doubt there is supreme talent and execution at play on this album, and for many it will prove a moving experience, but for all the technical excellence (it is a wonderful sounding record) sections felt particularly unmoving for Your Grouchy Friend.
The second of the lead in singles “Dog Eat Dog” is purely and simply a ton of fun. It’s an absolute winner in terms of Patton at his humourous and acerbic best, all the while delivering little quivering ear-worms on hooks. Musically, this one is one the simpler side but it flows wonderfully well and doesn’t outstay its welcome. In a strange way, the final track had this reviewer wanting to go back and listen to the whole lot again – that has to be a good thing and reflects well on the entire listening experience.
There remains an overriding curiosity for many when it comes to the myriad projects in which Patton and his broad range of musical colleagues have indulged themselves and it is very easy to see why. There is no shortage of exploration on hand and Tomahawk are a band who have carved out a discrete space for themselves in Patton’s cannon. There are times when the album feels vital and dynamic, there are others where it feels stagnant or treads water. “Tonic Immobility” references older work to good effect which will endear it to genuine fans but I suspect those on the fence will remain very much so.
If clean, muted and reverberated guitar lines and rolling tube-driven bass lines that explode into distorted cadential glory sound like your thing then give this one a whirl because that’s what Tomahawk do at their best. A best that is incredibly dynamic: equal parts brooding, flavoured and aggressive.
“Tonic Immobility” – out Friday 26 March through Ipecac Recordings / Liberator Music
Tonic Immobility – 2021
Oddfellows – 2013
Anonymous – 2007
Mit Gas – 2003
Tomahawk – 2001