Singers are an especially revered species of rocker, not merely because they hold center stage but because their voices put the most dramatic stamp on a groupís sound. Mike Patton, who became a star fronting the San FranciscoĖbased Faith No More from 1988 to 1998, has done his best to confound that idea. Over the last five years, heís intensified his efforts to obliterate his voice ó to transform it into a chameleonic instrument by running it through all sorts of electronic gadgets and amplifiers, growling in a monotone and singing in dizzy falsetto or swooping between the two in a flash ó with a variety of bands. His most recent recordings with the groups Fantômas, Dillinger Escape Plan, and Tomahawk ó whose second album, Mit Gas (Ipecac) has just been released ó mark the 35-year-oldís transformation from traditional frontman to the Jimi Hendrix of rock singers, an inventive force whose sonic innovations and penchant for spontaneity are rarely matched in his genre.
Although Tomahawk are Pattonís straightest band ó a riff-powered hard-rock ensemble led by former Jesus Lizard guitarist Duane Denison ó Mit Gas is full of vocal curveballs, from the reptilian recitation that opens the mordant " Rape This Day " to the distorted howl that punches toe-to-toe at the gnarly guitars of " Capt. Midnight " to the deadpan, mechanical intonations and warm angelic tenor that he ricochets between on " Action 13FH. " Thanks to Pattonís singing and the bandís brawny attack, which hinges on Denisonís charmed way with melodies and crunchy riffs, plus a rhythm section that can ply anything from bull-in-a-china-shop swing to industrial pulverizing, theyíre the most interesting smackdown band to come along since Tool, with whom they toured last year. The group employ tunes defined by everything from Denisonís slide-guitar hooks to lyrics about deformity and brain eating. They ignore the new-metal staples of hyper-amped tuned-down guitars and post-hardcore chanting, aiming for something edgier balanced atop a classic, heavy-rock foundation.
" I donít see the voice as being different from any other instrument, " Patton says, explaining his MO from the Oregon stop of the Tomahawk tour thatíll hit the Roxy this Tuesday. " You should be able to fuck it up with effects and amplifiers and just phrase as insanely as you want, so you can truly use it as an instrument as wild as an electric guitar. "
That was obvious when Patton hit his full stride in 2001, on Fantômasís The Directorís Cut (Ipecac), where he didnít so much sing as gibber, rant, and yowl through the disc. " Thatís my band, " he explains, " so I could fuck things up as much as I wanted. In Tomahawk, everything starts in Duaneís little pea brain and comes out his fingers. Heís a great guitarist, and thatís why I wanted to work with him. "
As daring as Pattonís vocalizing is, heís careful to point out that " there are plenty of other people who sing this way, but often theyíre not in rock. Itís a little bit more of an avant thing. " He cites occasional Fred Frith collaborator Phil Minton and jazz singer Linda Sharrock as examples. " I think using lots of electronics on my voice led me to being more courageous about improvising. If youíre willing to flop around on stage like a fish in front of people, your confidence and ability to go out on a limb improve. "
Indeed, when he went into the studio with his friends in New Jersey art-core outfit Dillinger Escape Plan last year after their singer left, he wore a gas mask and barked out terse, indecipherable phrases. It was a perfect fit for the groupís angular attack on Irony Is a Dead Scene (Epitaph), which had the reeling, lurching feel of a high-speed, stop-start Tilt-a-Whirl trip.
When Patton takes the stage at the Roxy with Tomahawk, heíll be surrounded with an array of pedals on the floor, much like a sound-fiend guitarist. Heíll also be employing a new noisemaker he calls the " Alarm Box, " a custom-built contraption with car alarms, school bells, smoke alarms, horns, and other jarring effects. " I canít run it through the amp like I do my voice, though, " he notes. " Itís so obnoxious, people would run out the doors. "
Tomahawk are certainly Pattonís most ambitious and mainstream-friendly project since Faith No More. " I was ready when the opportunity came. After years away from straight-ahead rock, it seemed exotic to me. Obviously, I satisfy my more obscene cravings with other projects. Thatís the reason to be in a variety of bands: it allows you to approach music from different perspectives and to satisfy all your cravings. And if I feel like Iím not being stimulated in a certain way by any of my bands, I can always start another one. "
Tomahawk play the Roxy, 279 Tremont Street in the Theater District, this Tuesday, May 20, with openers the Melvins and Dalek. Call (617) 338-7699.