By Ben Westhoff and Sarah Purkrabek
By Steve Brennan
By Joseph Hess
By Allsion Babka
By Kelsey McClure
By RFT Music
By Christian Schaeffer
By Gabriel San Roman
Not since the heady days of the mid to late-'80s has the concept of Boy Pop Group (TM and © Maurice Starr) been so prevalent. Recognizing that the Spice Girls were just not banal enough, producers and talent managers on both sides of the Atlantic scoured street corners and orphanages, purchasing the finest-looking and most disease-free urchins in record numbers, then spent days training them to dance, pout, dress and, in some cases, sing. Extra time was spent breaking them of the habit of propositioning older businessmen. Millions of dollars were flushed down the bottomless toilet of PR, and the next thing you know, prepubescent girls who just days earlier had been fantasizing about marrying Ken in their Barbie Dream Houses were now entertaining strange, tingly thoughts about some well-coiffed and probably gelded Boy Pop Star, who just weeks earlier was also fantasizing about marrying Ken in his Barbie Dream House.
As we've noted far too many times in recent weeks, interchangeable, bland Boy Pop Groups rule the charts now, and their names are recognizable to all serious music aficionados: There's, uh, Toby? Or is it Todd? Jett? Some guy with just initials? Just think of that guy in your high school who played the lead in every musical, was always surrounded by cheerleaders and yet was never seen on a date with one specific girl, and you have a pretty good idea of the makeup of any one of today's Boy Pop Groups. (And for the record, that guy in high school you just thought of? He's some BPG's backup dancer now).
Magazines, tabloid TV shows, radio stations and record companies are lining their pockets to the sweet, generic sounds of high harmonies and faux-soul crooning reportedly produced by these hairless Aryan boy divas. We devoted almost 1,500 words to the phenomena a few weeks back, and we closed our coverage with the warning that these groups will last only until "something" comes along to make their fans forget them, and their record labels drop them. That something is Fantomas.
Fantomas is, undoubtedly, the next step in Boy Pop Group evolution: Man Pop SUPERGROUP. Made up of drummer Dave Lombardo (ex-Slayer and Grip, Inc.), bassist Trevor Dunn (of Mr. Bungle and Secret Chiefs 3), guitarist Buzz Osborne (Melvins) and vocalist extraordinaire Mike Patton (Mr. Bungle, Faith No More, Maldoror), Fantomas is exactly what the teenybopper set should turn to when they realize that the Backstreet Boys really don't believe that God spent a little more time on them (or was that Five? Or maybe it was 98°. Someone should make these guys wear dog tags so you can tell them apart).
Buzz confirms Fantomas' imminent superstar status by making demands before consenting to answer any questions about the group: "Are you gonna put us on the front page? Put us on the front page. Promise me we're on the cover." But after a little hemming and hawing and a tiny white lie (sorry, Buzz, it had to be done), he gives up the goods on the Fantomas Sound that will soon be sweeping the nation:
"There are a lot of different things in there, like the Boredoms, other bands, but Fantomas has less melody than the Boredoms. There were some major labels interested -- until they heard the album." Buzz chuckles, and he's not bragging, just stating the facts. Buy their album Amenaza al Mundo and listen to it through headphones, at high volume, the highest you can tolerate. It will make your skin crawl. The songs are short, prickly bursts of sound collectively titled "Pages 1-30." There are no discernible lyrics. Patton grunts. He squeals. He shouts and scats like an angel-dusted jazz singer with Tourette's syndrome, his voice a percussive instrument that beats away inside the opaque noise boxes the rest of the band is building around him. When he sings, it sounds like the made-up language of twins, but you get the feeling he might have killed and eaten his twin, so no one knows what he's going on about anymore.
Lombardo's drums still pack the hellish fury of his thrash days, but he's allowed to change tempo in Fantomas, and he proves he has control over the fourth dimension's more oblique, angular paces. Trevor Dunn's bass leaps and staggers throughout, pulling the songs in one direction, then digs in its heels and fights the current. Buzz paws his guitar into strange gray areas between music and noise, creating sounds that are neither and both. The whole of it is disconcerting, throwing the listener off balance as recognizable song structures are approached, mauled and reconfigured for 42 minutes.
Fantomas is the creepy crawl of the Manson Family (Charlie, not Marilyn) made audible, and melody is Sharon Tate. And just as the Mansons had Charles in Charge, Fantomas has their own dark mastermind: Mike Patton. "Mike wrote 100 percent of Fantomas," admits Osborne. "He actually wrote 110 percent of it. Exactly what Mike wants is what Mike wants, so he dictated everything. He dictated what socks we could wear. There could be no argyle socks while recording." Patton's control over Fantomas extends to their visual presentation as well. He is credited with the album's artwork, which is taken from the Italian comic book Diabolik. The cover looks like a movie poster for the Mexican superhero Fantomas, who was based on the French pulp hero of the same name. Both characters are described in the World Encyclopedia of Comics as anti-heroes who don't "fight on the side of law, as do traditional heroes, but against it, for (their) own amoral purposes."
Diabolik and the Mexican Fantomas are supercriminals who steal and murder for their own gain. Diabolik, especially, was excoriated by critics for its violence. Fantomas (the Man Pop SUPERGROUP)'s use of nonsequential art from the comics and their cryptic song titles raise the question of the album's origin: Is it a soundtrack for an issue of Diabolik? If Buzz knows the truth, he's not telling. "That's as good an answer as any. Lots of people have told me that. I've never seen the comic. Sure, put that down." He's equally vague on the topic of more albums from the band. Amenaza al Mundo is subtitled "Book 1," so is it unreasonable to assume that it is only the first of a series of albums? "Well, we've been working on it (Amenaza al Mundo) for two years. There's just not enough time to do everything we want." Time constraints would seem to be an issue for Fantomas, because each member has other projects. Buzz and the Melvins put out two albums this year and will be releasing a third in January. Trevor Dunn has the Secret Chiefs 3's lodge meetings to attend, and he toured with Mr. Bungle all summer, as did Patton.
Patton is also busy running Fantomas' record label, Ipecac, with Greg Werckman. The arrangements suit Buzz just fine. "Ipecac is great. We're very happy with them, and they're doing well. There's no hassles from industry meatheads." With their combined output this year, it's not impossible that the members of Fantomas could reconvene and create a sequel. Buzz concurs, "Yeah, we're not methadone addicts sitting around wondering why things aren't getting finished." The question remains, will their audience stick around if it takes another two years to release another album? Buzz isn't so sure. "I don't think the fan base will stick around for too long. They come to the show for "Lombarrrrrr-dooo!' but they get something more vicious."
It's that "something more vicious" that's going to prove Buzz wrong. Sure, the metalheads expecting Slayer are going to be disappointed, but there is a much nastier audience brewing in the not-so-distant future. Millions of little girls are coming to realize that they are being taken for a ride. Their Pop Idols are just puppets wielded by smarmy businessmen looking to make a quick buck. Someday, those little girls are going to grow weary of factory- built pop products breaking their hearts. They're going to tire of rehashed melodies and cliché lyrics. From Fabian to New Edition, every Pop Idol is eventually abandoned by his followers. Today's crop is perhaps the worst ever. The impending backlash against them is growing, gaining strength and power as the year grinds to a close, and as those girls approach puberty, and their first boyfriend, and the horrifying truth that not all boys will sing to them before they grope them in the backseat of Daddy's Lexus. Those girls are going to be pissed, and some of them are going to reject every lie they've been fed.
And for those girls, Fantomas Awaits. More vicious. Less melody. VIVA FANTOMAS!
Fantomas performs at Mississippi Nights on Saturday, Dec. 18. Also on the bill is Kid 606 (see "Sound Checks").