REVIEWED: Tomahawk - 'Tonic Immobility'
Sometimes, the clue’s in the name. Tomahawks are a symbol of American culture, emblematic of the Native Americans who first used them, and then according to history and or/legend, the arrival of the Europeans gradually saw a peace pipe incorporated into the handle and often manufactured as trade gifts, a clear symbol of the choice the Native Americans and Europeans had when meeting for parley. As a neologism for the American underground rock supergroup, it couldn’t be more apt. The members - Mike Patton, Duane Denison, Trevor Dunn and John Stannier - have long lived their musical career in contrast and subversion, mixing moods with subliminal ease.
And as a sign of the world getting back to normal, ‘Tonic Immobility’ has hit our ears, and to be honest it couldn’t have come at a better time. Compared to ‘Anonymous’ from 2007 and its exploration of Native American music and the more obtuse and considered ‘Oddfellows’ from 2017, this is a more driving rock record in the vein of ‘Tomahawk’ and ‘Mit Gas’. ‘SHHH’ and ‘Valentine Shine’ are probably the greatest left-right combo of openers in a record for quite a while, the incessant needling picking of the former seguing into back and forth dovetails into the accented locomotive of the latter. As always, Mike Patton’s vocal skills are unsurpassed, both in range and in contrasts. But often overlooked is just how much of a team player he is. His solo projects are quite rightly lauded for his sheer range and creativity, but he never lets that overshadow the talents of his fellow musicians. And quite right too. Duane Denison should be on everyone’s lips as a great guitarist, and a perfect foil for pattern, for his consistency and invention. His previous project Jesus Lizard were legendary, and he strikes the perfect balance once again here; the dichotomy of iron-tight rhythm is at odds with the somewhat manic accenting he puts on his skittish flamenco flurries in ‘Predators And Scavengers’.
But that song again shifts under our very perceptions, and they almost take a backseat to John and Trevor’s engine room dynamics and interplay on drums and bass. To absolutely no surprise to anyone who’s listened to Helmet and Battles, it’s John who drives this song with his interplay of power of dynamics. Trevor Dunn too - his jazzier fingers in contrast to previous bassist Kevin Rutmanis’ plectrum powerhouse playing - shows what he brings to the party throughout, matching John as tight as he should be, but letting his fingers doing the talking on ‘Doomsday Fatigue’. Which opens up the twilight side of Tomahawk. Patton has always had a fascination with stepping outside the traditional rock templates and being a bit of a crooner, and this is a sultry slowburner of a track - and depressingly references current events with the ‘COVID smiles’ line. Further subversion comes in the implied malevolent bass line that snakes into the intro of ‘Business Casual’, again showcasing Mike’s cynical sideswipes at the modern world with his sneering buzzword couplets, punctuated by John’s snare snaps and hissing hi-hats.
It’s the second half of the record that seems to take on a swampier, darker done with the run in raucous single ‘Dog Eat Dog’ and its Melvins-esque swinging grunge riff, and it’s perhaps these moments that more resemble darker sophomore ‘Mit Gas’. ‘Fatback’ is once again a rhythmic beast, with a tortured solo issuing from the gloop, dripping with menace. It also marks the first noticeable appearances of keyboard and samples, leading more the air of a ‘traditional’ rock record, albeit an obtuse one that builds its own world more so than others, as ‘Eureka’ rumbles and swirls ominously with a high reverberation string bend as a lead in to the falsetto-led’ Sidewinder’ and its desert-dry production and twisting denouement of easy listening. At this stage, ‘Recoil’ is perhaps the most casually dynamic track on the album, and shows Trevor’s finest chops with an effortless bass line that sits in the pocket like an ace in the hole, never quite settling and always keeping us intrigued is it uncoils and then coalesces into a 3am jazz run that sometimes wrong steps itself.
Twenty years on from their self-titled debut, Tomahawk have made it look all too easy. By their earlier standards, it might seemingly lack the incisive shock value of their self-titled, or the sheer nightmarish Lynchian quality that permeated ‘Mit Gas’ or the somewhat sheer unknowability of ‘Oddfellows’. But those are just comparisons to the canon, not criticism. As stated in the pre-press, this is just an album Tomahawk wanted to make for themselves. The final line of the record goes: “we are Tomahawk, and we approve this message”. We approve their message too.
‘Tonic Immobility’ is out now on Ipecac