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Surgical Strike

Phantom of the OpeRa: Dave Lombardo (from left), Mike Patton, Trevor Dunn and Buzz Osborne are Fantmas.
Dustin Rabin

When Mike Patton first brought Fantmas to life in 1998, the term he used to describe the band's work was "uneasy listening." That's a tremendous understatement when applied to its third and latest album, Delirium Cordia -- which consists of one continuous 74-minute piece of music called "Surgical Sound Specimens From the Museum of Skin." It is, without a doubt, one of the most challenging aural experiences you will ever lay ears upon. Anxiety-ridden and mordant, the piece paints a hauntingly surreal picture of surgery from a subjective point of view; you, the listener, are made to feel like you're on an operating table, and the anesthetic doesn't feel good. The mood is downright nightmarish, a real testament to the evocative power of music.

Even the tough, resolved listener who doesn't frighten easily will still have to face the album's artwork, which contains graphic photographs taken during surgical procedures. It could be argued that the images are gratuitous, but they were taken with noble intentions. In fact, photographer Max Aguilera-Hellweg's work was inspired by a reverent exploration of the human body that ultimately led to his enrolling in medical school and becoming a doctor.

And if the carnage in the photos and the music isn't enough to rattle you, there's something else: the sound effects. Samples of stuff like a nurse saying "Flatline" and the sound of steel hacking through flesh are certain to, well, get under your skin. "It's totally full of anxiety and stress," confirms bassist Trevor Dunn. "It's not like something you put on in the background and whistle away. It's really kind of disturbing in a way."

Still, it's not all harrowing. Although surgery is undeniably physical, the album's long, restrained passages also suggest an otherworldly spirituality. In other words, Mike Patton's near-death trip of a record, while unflinchingly real, strives for something higher.

In 1988, Patton and Dunn were both playing in a San Francisco band called Mr. Bungle when Patton caught the attention of Faith No More, which was searching for a new singer. Because Patton's first national exposure came with FNM's The Real Thing (his debut with the band and by far its most accessible record), his career is often misinterpreted as "the guy from the funk-metal combo goes avant-garde." In reality, the album -- and Patton's feeble, second-rate, Anthony Kiedis-style rapping -- stands out as a commercial anomaly in both Patton's and Faith No More's collective discographies. Patton had displayed eccentric tendencies before The Real Thing and has continued to ever since; Delirium should cement his reputation not only as a modern-day visionary, but as one of the world's foremost avant-garde composers.

For a composer he is. Dunn points out that unlike Mr. Bungle, Fantmas does not work collaboratively. He believes that collaborative bands often get locked in the "too many cooks spoil the soup" kitchen. Not so with his current group, which is rounded out by Melvins guitarist Buzz Osborne and legendary Slayer drummer Dave Lombardo.

"One of the things I like about Fantmas is that it's Patton's vision," Dunn says. "He writes music. He lets us know what he wants, and the other bandmembers try and do their best to realize that. There's really not a whole lot of improvisation. There's a little bit which we might milk live, but in general, Mike's got a pretty clear vision of what this music is. I mean, down to really minute details, like what cymbals he wants Dave to play in what section, what kind of distortion he wants me to use -- really specific."

Though Fantmas takes all four of its members out of the contexts in which they are best known, there is still a "supergroup" aspect to the lineup. Dunn says Patton put the band together over the phone. "He and I had been talking about doing this metal band for a while, and to me it was just like, 'Oh, yeah, [it's just] some idea,' and next thing I know, he's got this demo of all these tunes he's written, and he's trying to think, 'Ah, who should we get for drums and guitar?'" Dunn recalls. "So we didn't know what the chemistry was going to be like at all. It could have been a complete disaster."

Delirium and its predecessor, The Director's Cut, an assemblage of reworked movie themes, were recorded by Norah Jones engineer Husky Hoskulds. "Blue Note made [Jones] go back and redo [Come Away With Me], 'cause it was too interesting," Dunn says with a laugh. "[Hoskulds] did work on some of the stuff they salvaged for the record that was released. He won a Grammy for that. So we went for that Grammy Award-winning sound."

Turns out these sessions were a twofer: Delirium was recorded in tandem with the next Fantmas album. Fantmas simply recorded a bunch of music, and then Patton chose which of the two records to put the pieces on. Dunn says the next one will be more like the 1999 comic-book record, albeit with a twist. "It's short, chopped-up metal songs, but there's this cartoon theme going on, as opposed to this one that just came out with the medical-surgery theme," he says. "A lot of cartoon sound effects interspersed with the metal. It definitely sounds more like a band than Delirium does, which to me doesn't sound like a band at all. It sounds more like a collage."

When Fantmas first played live, Patton furnished his bandmates with "cheat sheets," including notes and stage directions. "We basically put the music together in a week and went on tour immediately, if I recall correctly," Dunn says. "I mean, in a sense, it was basically a more detailed set list, kind of reminding us of what was coming up next. In some cases, yeah, they'd be kind of specific about what notes we were playing. That's kind of gone by the wayside now. We've played a lot of that stuff so much that we've retained it."

To Dunn, that retention is the hardest part of being in Fantmas. The music -- contrary to the output of most bands -- is in continual forward motion. Though Dunn says it's not technically difficult to play, it never comes back to any verses, choruses or motifs. "The retention is where the major challenge is," he says. "There's not a whole lot, even as a player, to grasp on to. The form of the tune just kind of continues from one idea to the next and never returns. It just keeps going. Once you recall something, it's already gone."

And that's not necessarily a bad thing, he says. "It's good to be confused, for sure, to be uncomfortable for a minute. A lot of my favorite things to listen to are things I didn't like right off the bat, but I gave it some time."

Dunn says that he doesn't need to be challenged as a listener, but he feels differently about playing. "When it comes time for me to sit down and write some music," he says, "it's going to be different, and I don't want it to sound like something from the past. I want to reflect my time here on earth now." He fulfills his creative needs in a variety of situations, including his own Trio Convulsant, John Zorn's Electric Masada, and clarinetist David Krakauer's electric klezmer/DJ band, Klezmer Madness.

With Japa-noise avant-grindcore act Melt Banana on board, the Fantmas tour is one of the more high-profile non-mainstream shows of the year. It promises to challenge audiences and bandmembers in equal measure, even if it's not a big moneymaker.

And that's fine with Dunn: "I realized a long time ago that there wasn't a ton of money and fame and fortune in this kind of music."