At best, Mr. Bungle are reluctant heroes – powerfully contrarian to their very last breath as a unit (until their recent reunion, that is), they seemed to be intent on sabotaging their own appeal at any given opportunity, without realizing that this exact attitude would one day make them one of the most revered, legendary, and influential acts in the avant-garde of rock and metal music. Their erstwhile swan song, 1999’s California, is no different in that regard.
Now, five days after said album’s 21st anniversary (look who’s legally allowed to drink now!), we’d like to take you on ride you will never forget – or, if you’ve already heard the album, one that’ll make you fondly reminisce on this particular moment in music history. Below, you will find what EIN editor David, as well as staff writers Pete and Ashley have to say about California.
If you jump into and subsequently wade through the large ballpond of Mike Patton-fronted records, you will find varying degrees of style and clarity. At regular points, you’ll also hit a long-lasting treasure that is just that little bit more precious than all other immediate surroundings. Out from the good stands the exceptional, and that is precisely what California is.
Alongside its many other manifolds of experimental prowess, one must also consider what an achievement this album is solely within the inclusive realms of Mr. Bungle’s timeline. There was always a sense of evolution stemming from the days of the band’s rustic death metal demo, The Raging Wrath of The Easter Bunny. Their subsequent breakthrough 1991 self-titled debut album Mr. Bungle showed an irresistibly vulgar fusion of jazz, funk, metal, and a great wealth of other things, which was superseded by the comparatively weirder Disco Volante in 1995. Their third and final album, California, was released in 1999, and it was nothing like anything Mr. Bungle had created before.
Perhaps by this point, the band decided that a transition was needed. Transitions were indeed underway all around them. It was the turn of a new millennium, Faith No More had announced their dissolution, and the pattern of music appeared to be shifting in general. It seemed to be the job of these horribly talented musical deviants to shift alongside, but their incentive was to craft music in a manner completely absent from the mission statements of anyone else operating at that point. California, by all rights, exists out of time and place. It will forever be one of a kind.
Every song on the record, from the opener of “Sweet Charity”, and through to the closure of “Goodbye Sober Day” serves as an ultra-smooth construct, intricately woven and bereft of the sporadic cut-and-paste method found in Mr. Bungle’s previous work. The album steadily oozes spacey sounds, psychedelic boogie beats and reflective melodies which maintain a boundless sense of fun and larger-than-life personality throughout every progression. California is a detailed and bouncy record, so dreamy it will melt away any rigid inhibitions you’ll have going in, but it also contains sufficient adventurousness to make you want to party. Call it the alternative record for every occasion, all of them positive.
I’m not certain it would be possible to offer highlights of the best bits. Every track is a diamond. It has always been the band’s gift to create with such ingenuity, even in their early days. Therefore, I will always appreciate, but never fully understand how they are able to drink from the well of such distinct influence and use it to forge an opus so tight, unique and downright magical. In recent times, Mr. Bungle have reformed, albeit in strong favor of their noisy metal origins, but I will always keep closest to my heart the culmination of their musical experiment, when Arabic discotheque, surf jazz, rock‘n’roll groove, and electronic…whatever “Golem II: The Bionic Vapour Boy” was…worked in perfect free-spirited harmony.
Not bad for a band who once made a song called “My Ass is on Fire”.
Mr. Bungle are a perfect band to play when you want to truly understand if someone really stands by their claims of ‘I’ll listen to everything’. One spin of Mr. Bungle and you’ll have a good idea how far you can push someone musically (yes, we’re looking at you, “Slowly Growing Deaf”). Our focus today – California – broke away from the more vulgar nature of the first two records, whilst still keeping in line with their any genre goes policy.
If Mr. Bungle and Disco Volante were Bungle’s retelling of fucked-up ’80s childrens’ movies in musical format, California is their take on Disney movies. It feels more measured, yet also more epic, with amazing vocal hooks from Mike Patton layered on top of huge backing tracks. After a spin you’ll be singing songs back to yourself, just like you would had you smashed The Jungle Book on LSD.
Personally, I discovered Mr. Bungle after already finding myself balls deep in bands influenced by them, like Between The Buried And Me and Diablo Swing Orchestra. As you work back to Mr. Bungle‘s three albums, you realise that in similar fashion to the way that Twin Peaks and The Sopranos have defined the last twenty years of television, Bungle helped to lay the foundations for these subsequent bands. Not only the courage to get as weird as they do, but that they could also break the mainstream with such a wild blend of music.
Looking deeper into the record, its controversies (check out the Red Hot Chili Peppers dispute), and lyrical content has been fascinating. Despite masquerading as weird and whacky, deep within the album is a take on postmodernism and our fascination with technology, the blending of so many genres an almost ironic take on how we intertwine ourselves together too much. The album is titled California to highlight that the state and the companies within are building this technological façade.
Looking even deeper at the recording process, every single sample is an original recording by the band, highlighting the dedication that went into the record. Many have also suggested that this links to the band’s criticism of the way technology is allowing bands to sample effortlessly and without skill, suggesting really deep meaning in the way the record is constructed.
If their recent cover of “USA” by The Exploited is anything to go by, their opinions on the state of the world hasn’t changed much. It’d be great to hear how their collective taste has developed over the last twenty-one years since California, but with such a varied style, it’s hard to imagine it would be stale. This album is arguably their magnum opus, a record that takes the madness of the first two and invokes more introspection and mindfulness when listening. It is a challenge, yet also an enriching experience that’ll keep you coming back for more.
I like to imagine that Mike Patton and the rest of Mr. Bungle got the idea for California by going on a vacation together to sunny Malibu, only to be greeted with an eccentric, disturbed cartoon version of the city. Shells of spent bombs litter the beaches, mutated and irradiated people walk the piers, and the ocean is an off-putting soylent green tint. A malignant, beating sun hangs over everything, threatening to scorch the earth with a solar flare tentacle at any given moment before burning out in a fit of spite.
Then it all turned out to be a shared fever dream that everyone remembers differently, but dedicates to tape in a sort-of Mad Libs version of artistic vomit, hence the absolute whiplash-inducing stylistic melting pot the album became.
Seriously, it would take a whole book to really delve into and take proper attendance of the myriad of influences and sounds heard here. One thing is certain though – it’s weird as hell; uncanny even for Mr. Bungle’s standards, whose previous album was an experimental rush of blood in the mid-90s.
Two years removed from what would be Faith No More’s final album until 2015, Patton just seemed to eurostep right into Mr. Bungle’s high-flying capers with California, an album that had no proper precursor and no successor since. Surf rock, doo-wop, space electronica, psychobilly; it’s incomprehensibly dense, risking haphazard levels of structure. At any given time, it always seems like a hop, skip, and a jump away from being the first album to be charged with disorderly conduct.
California is rife with themes of death, heaven, or an ‘end’ of some sort, as if implying The Golden State – or at least Mr. Bungle’s version – is where a lot of aspects of humans go to die. “Retrovertigo” is the death or severe repression of empathy in favor of profit and image as the instrumentation staggers drunkenly through sunburnt rock. “Ars Moriendi”, one of my favorite songs, translates from Latin to ‘the art of dying’, and is a surreal romp incorporating West Asian tones and instruments. An accordion tears through much of the track in a bid to keep up with Patton’s wild vocalizations and Latin chants – or perhaps it’s Patton trying to keep up. Like many other points on California, it’s hard to know which direction is the correct one – when asked, the album only responds with a cryptic ‘yes.’
“Sweet Charity” expertly riffs on lounge music, “Golem II: The Bionic Vapour Boy” is a trippy and plucky electronic monolith, much like the eponymous golem, and “Vanity Fair” is a doo-wop pop (doo-pop?) nightmare of self-flagellation with much too positive a mood for the lyrical content (this isn’t a complaint, as I love that kind of tonal disparity in music). The album seems to touch on almost all forms of contemporary music, both then-current and old.
Hell, there’s even flecks of metal if you’re desperately searching for the heavier side of Mr. Bungle. “Goodbye Sober Day” becomes rapidly unraveled as it goes from soft rock lightly coated in tropical themes and becomes devoted to Kecak chants and harder instrumentation. In this manner, the album chooses a ceremonial death – one not adherent to any perceivable culture or religion – though less of the body and more of the ego or hubris that could be found throughout California. One where the end of the rainbow was only concerned with self and not much else. Either that, or I’m wildly overthinking it.
That’s kind of the beauty of Mr. Bungle and much of Patton’s work – in search for a possible tongue buried in cheek, there’s genuine criticism and a fashioned theme to track as you listen to the enigmas they call songs. It’s like your brain needs a decoder to unlock the knowledge that the band may or may not have buried far, far below the substrate of quirky, but talented musicianship and a desire to dizzy anyone brave or unknowing enough to give their records a spin.
This all makes it weird, though also maybe prophetic, that this album also fueled a big feud between Mr. Bungle (chiefly Patton though) and Red Hot Chili Peppers (chiefly the band’s frontman, Anthony Kiedis). RHCP were kind of mad that Mr. Bungle named their album California when they had an album called Californication. Because, you know…RHCP invented California or some shit. The two albums were actually going to release on the same day, but Warner Bros. (the label for both releases) delayed California by a month and some change. Kiedis took things a step further by using his stardom and pull to get Mr. Bungle kicked off a handful of summer festival shows that RHCP were also playing.
Mr. Bungle fired back by ‘dressing up’ as the members of RHCP at a Halloween show in 1999 where they learned songs from Californication backstage at the set, drew on crude interpretations of the tattoos each RHCP member had, and went out there to do a full-on mock of them, complete with purposefully bad cover songs, and mimicking heroin injections on stage as an obvious dig at Kiedis’ drug problem. They were obviously pissed at the loss of income and huge exposure potential for the better part of a year, but this was juvenile and tasteless at best – don’t make fun of someone’s drug addiction, people. Then again, so too were Kiedis’ moves, so everyone took an L. This all likely stemmed originally from Kiedis thinking that Patton was stealing his style in their Faith No More’s “Epic” music video from 1990. You can read more about it complete with quotes from both parties over at the Bungle Fever fansite or on Mr. Bungle’s Wikipedia. In closing; Anthony Kiedis used Ego Trip. It’s super effective!
Anyway, yes, music. California being the swan song for Mr. Bungle is fitting given its themes. The album sounds like the sun not only setting on the band, but the world itself with its apocalyptic tropic wasteland interpretation of West Coast (really, American) idealism and isolationism. So many weird bands are indebted to this clown prince group for being so outlandish in their expressions, both artistically and performance-wise. Even with only three albums, they’ve proven to have more influence than other offbeat bands with double or even triple the discography. If none of it works for you, don’t worry – there’s a Mike Patton project for just about everyone. Good luck out there!
What are your thoughts on/experiences with California? Are you a fan of Mr. Bungle, and if so, what’s your favorite album of theirs? Do you have any records you’d like to recommend for inclusion in A Scene In Retrospect? Leave it all in the comments if you feel like sharing!