Albums Revisited: Mr. Bungle’s Self-Titled Debut Turns 25: looking back at one of the strangest albums of a very strange decade on its 25th anniversary.
Mr. Bungle changed my life. Mr. Bungle helped me meet my wife. Seriously. Upon meeting her through a friend of a friend, I began my best attempts at making conversation (not my greatest strength). Somehow she brought up a high school anecdote about driving around in a friend’s car listening to Mr. Bungle’s first album, mesmerized by its weirdness.
Holy shit. She liked Mr. Bungle? Do you realize how few times Mr. Bungle comes about in mixed company? I thanked the obscure music gods and began to ramble on about Mr. Bungle in every way I could. Probably a little too much looking back. But 10 years and a baby later, well, I should really send a thank you card to those guys.
The first time I heard Mr. Bungle’s magnificently twisted 1991 début album (which celebrates its 25th anniversary on August 13th), I was in college (the 90’s was the best time to be both in college and into music). Some friends and I were talking about our mutual love of Faith No More, when one asked if we’d heard vocalist Mike Patton’s other band. When I said no (although I’d eyed it suspiciously in record stores after seeing Patton’s T-shirt in the Epic video… and I still have mine!), his eyes grew wide and he exploded: “Dude! You gotta check it out!”
Cut to all of us listening to it on my shitty boombox. And even though I was stone cold sober at the time, I felt like somebody slipped me something. How else to explain the disorienting sound that eked out of my speakers like some twisted cotton candy dream?
Faith No More were delightfully weird, but Mr. Bungle were off the charts bonkers. From the opening track Travolta (later changed to Quote Unquote to avoid legal action) I was in shock. A disorienting mix of metal, ska, horror show soundtrack and carnival music, it was controlled chaos, shifting from genre to genre all in one song. It was overwhelming, cinematic, hilarious, yet frightening.
It was also the only video from the album, but the visuals of the band dressed in creepy masks and dangling from meat hooks freaked out MTV so much they never played it. Slipknot pretty much owe their entire career to that video.
And it just got weirder: Squeeze me Macaroni was about banging food over a ferocious bed of jazz funk, while Stubb A Dub was a eulogy to a family pet that sounded like a mix of Copacabana and Inspector Gadget with a wind up monkey doll bashing his cymbals in a meth-rage.
The album was produced by John Zorn, and his avant-garde jazz pedigree made him the perfect (and only) fit for their début. He honed in on their jaw-dropping musicianship, while never dulling their edges.
Mr. Bungle’s whole album feels like nightmare fuel, and that’s helped by a variety of factors. In addition to their mind-bending compositions, their use of samples aid immensely in setting the queasy atmospherics.
There’s a whole grab bag of weird soundbites: from Colonel Sanders getting tongue-tied cutting a KFC commercial during Slowly Growing Deaf, to Blue Velvet quotes (multiple songs), to a weird field recording of the band jumping on a train (Egg). And, most notably, snippets from the Mr Bungle educational film, from which the band derived its name (Love Is A Fist).
Perhaps most jarring for yours truly, were the samples from the fun house ride-themed Carousel which used sound effects from the pinball game Cyclone. We had that game in our dorm hall and I almost jumped five feet in the air when I made the connection.
The album artwork helped sell the disturbitude as well: the images taken from the book A Cotton Candy Autopsy, featured illustrations of murderous clowns. Mr Bungle were in on the ground floor for the whole evil clown thing, and its impossible to hear the album without those terrifying visages popping into your head.
Mr Bungle was a band formed in high school, and for all their musical gifts, they sound like one here: bratty and self-indulgent–making an alternate reality to escape the confines of their sleepy hometown of Eureka, California.
Just listen to Egg, with its seemingly endless refrain of There’s no place like home, where Patton tries to keep a straight face while doing voices straight out of a Hanna Barbera cartoon. It’s the equivalent of that annoying kid in class who keeps poking you with a pencil, but you’re too busy laughing to slap him.
While Patton steals the show, its worth noting his fellow members: guitarist Trey Spruance flits between funk guitar and death metal like a duck to water, while bassist Trevor Dunn and drummer Danny Heifetz never lose control of their manic tempos.
But the two unsung heroes are Clinton McKinnon and Theo Lengyel, whose dual sax work amps up the weirdness and the musical cred. While the album has elements of ska, it’s the polar opposite of the happy-go-lucky sound that raged for a few minutes in the 90’s. Their demented horn-work on The Girls of Porn and Egg are delightfully unhinged.
Despite the album’s impressive chops and production, Mr Bungle got panned by critics from its release, including Entertainment Weekly, who said:”Adjectives like ‘puerile’ and ‘unlistenable’ take on entirely new dimensions when applied to Mr. Bungle.” Well, it’s not for everyone.
Mr. Bungle would go on to make two more albums, 1995’s Disco Volante and 99’s California, each with their distinct sonic identity. But nothing will ever top their crazy-quilt début: garish, hilarious, creepy, disgusting and artful, it’s too much of a good thing. It’s not everyday listening. But when I want to feel like I’m on a rollercoaster hopped up on bad acid, it’s comforting to know it’s always there when I need it.