The Lowdown: The past year has been trying for the working musician. The “album cycle” as we know it was upheaved, leaving bands in limbo and unable to tour or even practice safely. It will undoubtedly be seen as a dark era for the music industry in retrospect; however, the isolation didn’t mean that artists stopped creating. A year after the pandemic hit, we’re now seeing the release of these so-called quarantine records. Recorded in 2020, the fifth LP from Mike Patton-fronted supergroup Tomahawk, Tonic Immobility, is one such album — the “immobility” in the title hinting at the malaise of lockdown life. With the uncertainty of the world around them, the band entered the studio and conjured the familiar sound of its past work — twisted hard rock steeped in Patton’s oblique humor.
The Good: Tonic Immobility — the band’s first album in eight years — is arguably Tomahawk’s most diverse offering to date, swinging wildly between heavy experimental rock, theatrical ambience, and more accessible, radio-friendly hard rock. The opening barrage of “SHHH!” and “Valentine Shine” see Patton carrying over some the thrashy barks from Mr. Bungle’s latest project. The latter track’s skronky guitar leads and rhythms are a penchant of guitarist Duane Denison (The Jesus Lizard), and longtime Tomahawk fans will immediately recognize his wily playing style. The band’s rounded out by rounded out by drummer John Stanier (Battles, ex-Helmet) and Mr. Bungle bassist Trevor Dunn.
The topically titled “Doomsday Fatigue” offers a brief reprieve in the form of a woozy, sparse composition that evokes the smoldering black asphalt of a summer day in Los Angeles. Patton plays right along with a lurching vocal track. In the sequence of the tracklist, it provides a perfect intro for lead single “Business Casual” — a grunged-out heavy rocker with massive Denison power chords. Patton’s boisterous shouts and howls are echoed by softer musical moments, like the minor arpeggios in the bridge of “Tattoo Zero”. Balance in the songs keep the from sounding too same-y, and for each harsh moment, Tomahawk dish out something mellow.
The album’s B-side settles into a comfortable midtempo that compliments the heavier first half. The trio of tracks starting from “Howlie” through “Sidewinder” almost act as a suite, with atmospheric desert rock, spaghetti western homages (Patton does love the Dollars trilogy, after all), and spoken-word narration. This is where Tomahawk shine, creating a sort of heavy post-rock that’s specific to the Denison-Patton songwriting team.
The Bad: The slower and spacier songs on Tonic Immobility have far more staying power than the straightforward hard rock tracks. While Patton’s extreme vocals work well in Mr. Bungle’s thrash format and during Tomahawk’s wilder moments, it’s only one part of the singer’s worldclass range. Perhaps we’re just spoiled from hearing so many of his projects, but the theatrical tracks here are more satiating in the vocal department — a major component of any Patton-related act.
The Verdict: Tomahawk salvaged their downtime during the pandemic, crafting another strong record worthy of their consistent discography. Longtime fans will find plenty to enjoy on Tonic Immobility. The supergroup’s musical personality remains intact: Sometimes they want to rock out, others they seek experimentation. They’re competent at both, even if we’d prefer they stretch out even further beyond tried-and-true hard rock tropes.
Essential Tracks: “Doomsday Fatigue”, “Business Casual”, “Sidewinder”
Stream Tonic Immobility below via Apple Music or Spotify, and purchase the album via Amazon.