Rediscover “Disco Volante” (2023)

Mr. Bungle, that merry band of musical mischief-makers, made a big, Zorn-assisted splash with its self-titled, major-label debut in 1991. This was due, in part, to ringleader Mike Patton. The carnival-barker-esque Faith No More frontman was front and center on the radio-ready The Real Thing, which had exploded on the charts a year or two earlier, but continued working in Mr. Bungle under the name Vlad Drac. By 1995, with two more Faith No More records – dark, moody ones – already on the streets, fans and critics had high expectations for Mr. Bungle’s second major-label outing. And the band delivered – just not in the way people might have expected.

Disco Volante (Italian for “flying saucer”) is a strange, contrarian document of a record, perhaps Mr. Bungle’s strangest, and that’s saying a lot, maybe more than you could imagine. With 12 challenging, occasionally revelatory songs clocking in at more than an hour, the LP is driven by wild percussive threads and an overarching sense of madness, and is big on cuts and editing. To be clear, though, Disco Volante’s means of editing and undermining verse-chorus-verse conventions are nowhere near as pressurized as 1999’s California. Here, songs begin and end almost arbitrarily, with bizarre sound sequences appearing before, during and after key compositions. It’s not as fulfilling or sensical to listen to just one or two songs from the LP, or skip around outside the band’s predetermined sequencing. If you take it in from beginning to end, perhaps as intended, it’s a bizarre but oddly fulfilling trip.

And the compositions! The album opens with a grind and a roar: “Everyone I Went To High School With Is Dead,” which gives some indication of its ferociousness through its title. The band members speak-sing in deadpan unison, with Patton occasionally breaking into a scream or a roar, and Trevor Dunn unleashing the meanest, meatiest bass line on this side of the Melvins’ “Night Goat.” That composition also challenged those looking for the playfulness of Mr. Bungle, if nothing else. Then there’s “Sleep (Part II): Carry Stress in The Jaw,” a jazz workout, which begins with Dunn racing a blaring trumpet and unfurls into a nine-minute composition of alarming depth. It wraps up with a “secret song,” complete with faux-Grandpa Simpson voiceover, which sounds like Henry Mancini dropped too much acid while writing the Peter Gunn theme. “Mow Meeshka Mow Skwoz” is one of the band’s finest moments – on this or any record – and contains some Tex Avery-inspired sequences that border on the deliciously delirious.

As previously mentioned, the record has depth due partially to Patton’s vocal inventiveness. But that depth is also partially due to Danny Heifetz’s brilliant drum work. Heifetz darts between free-jazz stylings and hyper-precise death metal, sometimes at the drop of a hat. (The band makes great use of metal throughout; some of the record’s best moments are cranked up to 11.) And, freed up from the kind of cinematic editing and cut-heavy postmodern pastiche of California, here the band’s transitions are sudden and, yes, again, challenging – but often masterfully conducted.

Some 25 years later, a few songs on Disco Volante seem to act as precursors for what followed the band’s demise in the early 2000s. This is particularly true for “Desert Search for Techno Allah,” which revels in all the mid-90s house tropes you could imagine. But, beyond that, its fascination with Middle Eastern scales and Islamic mysticism portends the arrival of Trey Spruance’s Secret Chiefs 3, God bless ‘em.

Elsewhere, some songs (especially the collage-style trappings of “The Bends,” which calls for heavier editing) haven’t aged well. But that’s part of the charm of Disco Volante. The band, with Patton in the spotlight and the rest of Mr. Bungle reeling from the ska-, metal-, and funk-delirium of the self-titled outing, was being consciously difficult with its second Warner Bros. LP. It was a means to suggest that, if you couldn’t keep up with them, you might as well leave – one can think of no better means of getting an audience hungry to pay attention. If that’s not a beautiful, big middle finger to the strait-laced typicals out there, we don’t know what is. — Justin Vellucci, Spectrum Culture, Feb. 13, 2023


About the author

Justin Vellucci is a staff writer for PopMatters, Spectrum Culture, and MusicTAP, a contributor to Pittsburgh Current, and a former staffer for Popdose, Punk Planet and Delusions of Adequacy. His music writing has appeared in national magazines such as American Songwriter, alt-pubs like The Brooklyn Rail, Pittsburgh CityPaper and San Diego CityBeat, blogs Swordfish, Punksburgh and Linoleum, and the Gannett magazine Jetty. He lives in Pittsburgh.