Sweet Charity: Mr. Bungle’s California Turns 20

The last LP from Mike Patton’s celebrated avant-metal ensemble remains their best

Mr. Bungle press photo, 1999

Founded in 1985 and named after a 1950s-era children’s educational film—one that was famously mocked in 1981’s The Pee-wee Herman Show HBO special—Northern California experimental rock troupe Mr. Bungle has long been revered for being among the most eclectic, striving, and influential bands of their time. 

Indeed, their unpredictable and dense fusion of ska, disco, avant-garde, metal, jazz, funk and pop makes their trilogy of LPs as iconic and daring as they are inspirational and distinctive. (Of course, their eccentric vocalist, Mike Patton, is a big part of that.) In particular, Dog Fashion Disco, Major Parkinson, In the Presence of Wolves, uneXpect, and Ayreon—for whom Patton sang on 2004’s The Human Equation—are just a handful of the acts who directly or indirectly bare some Mr. Bungle brands. 

Mr. Bungle California, Warner Bros. 1999

Their first two outings—1991’s Mr. Bungle and 1995’s Disco Volante—are certainly legendary, but it’s their finale—1999’s California, whose title was finalized after Technicolor, Travolta, and Map to the Stars were scrapped—that endures and entices most. Reportedly, it was supposed to come out on June 8th; however, Red Hot Chili Peppers’ Californication was set to arrive then, too, so Warner Bros. Records pushed California back to July 13th. (Despite not necessarily being relevant here, the subsequent touring tension between Mr. Bungle and Red Hot Chili Peppers is really worth digging into.) At times tighter and more accessible than its predecessors, the album nonetheless expands upon their tongue-in-cheek playfulness, erudite arrangements and trademark stylstiic shifts (including nods to various kinds of film scores). Bassist Trevor Dunn aptly says that it “is the [mature] culmination of a . . . a deeper understanding of orchestration and song form,” and many fans and publications regard it as their masterpiece. For instance, Aaron Maltz of Invisible Oranges recently called it ‘their glorious, hideous, and revolutionary interpretation of pop music,” adding, “Much has changed in music since its release, but two decades later, California remains a landmark.” Other outlets, such as Alternative Press, Exclaim!, and Pitchfork have praised it as well. Clearly, California is still brilliantly idiosyncratic and ambitious.  

While the quintet were known for their erratic bombasticity, California shines when it comes to welcoming songwriting and arrangements, too. Patton’s entertaining opening ballad, “Sweet Charity,” is a great example of that. Beginning as an easygoing Hawaiian tune with birds chirping in the background, its blend of smooth singing and wide-ranging orchestration (thanks to roughly a dozen extra musicians) is delightfully colorful and soothing. Of course, the bellows and piano chords that complement the chorus make it celebratory catchy, and the ways in which the nuanced arrangement constantly changes is masterfully adventurous. Later, “Retrovertigo”—which was covered by Avenged Sevenfold in 2017 and blends “the concept of nostalgia and idolizing the ‘good ol’ days’ with nausea, or a loss of balance,’ according to Dunn—is similarly welcoming even if its somber and volatile peaks are more extreme. “Pink Cigarette” and “Vanity Fair” bring some wonderfully ornamented doo-wop friskiness to the mix, whereas the sweeping strings and gentle harmonies of “The Holy Filament” are lovely and luscious. Also, Aaron Seeman’s piano patterns promptly conjure Sky Architect’s “Deep Chasm” suite.

Another California-era Mr. Bungle publicity shot

That’s said, California packs quite a mind-bending punch when it comes to requisite genre-splicing and madcap intricacy. The second selection, “None of Them Knew They Were Robots,” is like the wildly changeable theme song to a Saturday morning cartoon, with touches of surf music, lounge music, swing and jazz coagulating into an ingeniously fun yet complex fever dream. (In continuing with the modern connections, it also bears a striking resemblance to Diablo Swing Orchestra’s “Voodoo Mon Amour.”) Afterward, the bizarre instrumental and vocal fluctuations of “The Air-Conditioned Nightmare” and “Ars Moriendi” undoubtedly stimulated much of Between the Buried and Me’s most unconventional moments. Near the end, “Golem II: The Bionic Vapour Boy” boundlessly bounces along with circus-esque nightmarish elasticity, while closer “Goodbye Sober Day” kind of combines the tranquil thickness of “Sweet Charity” with the hellish complexity of Sleepytime Gorilla Museum and the end of Yes’ “Sound Chaser.”

Twenty years later, California is just as potently and creatively fearless as ever, and the amount of acts it—in conjunction with its predecessors—inspired can’t be overstated. It contains some of Mr. Bungle’s most technically audacious and accessibly triumphant material, offering a multitude of enjoyable elements in every single piece. The fact that these nearly unclassifiable individual tracks then combine into a very cohesive sequence is just as astounding, cementing California as the group’s magnum opus. Many comparable artists have come and gone in the two decades since it served as their swan song, but Mr. Bungle—and California especially—remains one-of-a-kind. 

 

AUDIO: Mr. Bungle California (full album)

Jordan Blum

Jordan Blum is an Associate Editor at PopMatters, holds an MFA in Creative Writing, and is the founder/Editor-in-Chief of The Bookends Review, an independent creative arts journal. He focuses mostly on progressive rock/metal and currently writes for—or has written for—many other publications, including Sonic Perspectives, Paste, Progression, Metal Injection, Rebel Noise, PROG, Sea of Tranquility, and Rock Society. Finally, he records his own crazy ideas under the pseudonym Neglected Spoon. When he's not focused on any of that, he teaches English courses at various colleges and spends too much time lamenting what Genesis became in the 1980s. Reach Jordan @JordanBlum87.

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