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Old 01-26-2011, 02:05 PM   #1 (permalink)
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Default Top 10 Zorn Albums

It's very difficult to spend very long on this forum without getting one or two references to a man named John Zorn. A man who is relatively unknown by mainstream media(apart from a decently funny Colbert skit), but is adored by underground fans, especially of avant garde, and Jazz music.

Essentially, who is John Zorn? Well, when it comes to experimental improv/avant jazz/downtown music in the 90s he's THE MAN! There are very few artists around who have worked with as many people as John Zorn: Bill Frisell, Fred Frith, Yamataka Eye, Dave Lombardo, Mike Patton, Tatsuya Yoshida, Bill Lawell, Kronos Quartet, Bob Ostertag, Trey Spruance, Ikue Mori, essentially a whos who of 90s avant-garde composers.

He is attributed to working on what is literally said to be over one thousand songs, and over four hundred albums. In his own repertoire he has more than 60 works. Topping in terms of prolificness of even Zappa. Much like Zappa, he covers a myriad of genres. From jazz to noise to ambiance to chamber to Persian to any type of music you can name. Yet, even Zappa looks reserved in comparison to Zorn, who will stop at nothing to get an idea out to the world.

However, with that said, he has a very difficult discography to penetrate. With a seemingly endless assortment of musicians, and seemingly endless assortment of band names, it's really difficult to isolate the best of the best. Some of it is prime work(Spiallane) some if it sounds like he was goofing off with his friends, and decided to record it(Hemopheliac). Frankly, Zorn is a brilliant man, but even I'll admit, I'm shocked he hasn't recorded his own farts, and sold it yet.

With that said, I'd hate somebody to pick up an album of his that's either brilliant yet too dense, or one of the ones just done on a whim. The larger body of his work is just too good to look over.

Anyway, here's a guide. In my personal opinion, the top 10 Zorn albums for somebody who is curious why this saxophone squealing extremely nerdy Jewish man is beloved by so many...

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10. Kristallnacht - A very obscure Zorn album that doesn't get mentioned much. Like most on the list it's a somewhat early work. However, probably the only work where Zorn covers a serious topic, and attempts to do so somewhat seriously, and it pays of well. Kristallnacht is an incredibly painful work to listen to, and being centered entirely around the pain of the holocaust. Not with words, but with sounds, and it's done quite masterfully. Full evidence in Zorn's much hidden ability to compose a serious emotional piece. It's not the first piece to do so(Gyorgy Ligeti's Requiem is rumored to be about the same topic, another fantastically gorgeous piece), but certainly a very strong approach at the subject.

9. IAO - Horror music by Zorn. I take this one much in the liking of 'The Big Gundown' in the sense that it's a collection of themes, and ideas based of images not based of genres. Where as Death Metal creates horror by demonic screams, and viscous aggression, and movies tend to through soft discord. Zorn's subtle approach finds somewhere between the two. A lot to take in with this album, not every track like the rest. A lot of cheesyness chanting, etc. But with Zorn's musical mind, he finds a clever way to bring horror to the audience. One of the most fun, and unsettling albums ever made. Definitely a good work to check out.

8. New Traditions in East Asian Bar Bands - Zorn exploring entirely Asian music. It's not secret that Zorn has fascinations with Japanese culture. In fact, during a large portion of his career, he was an active citizen of Japan. Zorn's fascinations manifest themselves in many ways. Naked City is littered with Japanese S&M Porn(there is actually a Japanese S&M porn that used the album "heretic" as it's soundtrack), and he cites, and quite seriously it seems, being a major fan of Japanese girl pop. This album is Zorn's experiments in the far east(not just Japan), and it's wonderful. Utilizing narration entirely in non-English it represents a full cavalcade of Zorn madness entirely in the tinge of the far East. Masterful work, and from a compositional point of view, definitely some of Zorn's best.

7. Magick - I don't know whether it predated or came after Zorn's 'Cartoon', but I find Magick the much better of the string works. Shows Zorn in the capacity of working with only strings. You may think this is limiting, but this really brings out some of the most chaotic of Zorn's work. As usual, laced with rapid melody jumps w/complex assortments of drastically different patterns. Some of the most intense, and visceral string work I've ever heard. Shrill horror movie music. Very fast, unnerving, beautiful music.

6. Spillane/Goddard - Ok, Spillane is cheap. There is no way on earth that it could be humanly performed as it's recorded. Probably by far the most genre fusing chaotic piece I've ever heard. It's jumpier than Frank Zappa's "Brown Shoes Don't Make it", or even the works of Edgard Varese. You cannot listen to this song for more than 20 seconds without cycling through four phases. Some may not like this about this album, but I love it. I find it a fantastic mixture of things condensed so far. It loses a few points for maybe being a tad overdone by even my standards, but brilliant none-the-less.

Now, for those who assume this is a random collection of everything, they would be wrong. There's a very interesting documentary on the creation of Spillane(and Goddard which is essentially created the same way. Spillane is intended to represent life in New York, and Goddard for Japan since). That should give some insight on the outside the box thinking that creates Zorn works:



5. The Bribe - Of course, Genre is known for his mad science concoctions. However, the Bribe is different, as the mixing is more straight-forward. For anybody who is a more conservative musician, The Bribe is a good start. As by Zorn's standards, it's not that out there. Plus, it has a lot of Jazz, and proves that Zorn is capable of writing calmer, more melodic works. Technically a sequel to the more psychotic Spillane, I actually like the Bribe much better. Probably the best in terms of entry-point for his catalog.

4. Radio - They were just such a solid assortment, and probably the first case of Zorn really sinking his teeth in compositions created by himself(albeit, fairly enough, he claims to often watch TV, and steal commercial jingles, etc. transposing in his own work). This album may be the good first listen for anybody curious of Naked City as it's not ultra-fast 'switch genres by the measure' grindcore shorts. It actually starts with jazzier sort of more just laid black eclectic compositions.

For this work, eclectic is the key word. Radio slowly transcends into the dark world of Zorn every song. Closer, and closer. In the liner notes there's a veritable encyclopedia of influences. Radio is the last, and one of the best, Naked City works. Using a tad more subtlety than Torture Garden, it often has some moments that are just as visceral. Definitely a winner, and one of the most well crafted albums I've ever heard. A true nod to the brilliant minds involved(Zorn+Frith+Eye+Baron = sticky pants for Skaligojurah, albeit Eye plays a very small role in this one).

3. Six Litanies for Heliogabalus - Moonchild - Not only a pivotal Zorn album but an immense Mike Patton work to. Essentially this band is one half Bungle(Patton, Trevor Dunn), and one half Naked City (John Zorn, Joey Baron), and albeit as a complete package doesn't match either, it is probably Mike Patton's most virtuoso work as a vocalist. It's all screams, screeches, belches, etc. But done with the speed, and lack of subtlty of a thrash guitarist. Patton essentially is freaking shredding here throwing out his entire repertoire of screeches, snorts, coughs, weezes, etc. Zorn somehow pulling titanic efforts from Patton which by topple his own side projects(Mondo Cane, Tomahawk, Fantomas, Irony is a Dead Scene, etc) five times over. To add to Baron's amazing Rhythmic prowess, and Dunn's masterful bass-work. These entirely Zorn pieces wonderfully.

Done in rock trio format, but with the melodic complexity, and sprawling nature of orchestra. Vocals used with the same level of complexity as instrumentation. It's a bizarre wonderful album to listen to for both Zorn, and Patton fans. Certainly a masterwork on all levels.

2. The Big Gundown - I'm going to be straight with you. I have no freaking clue what the big deal behind Ennio Moricone is. I've heard a lot of his work, and never have been really all that impressed. That's why some may find it odd that - by far - one of my favorite Zorn CDs is actually may seem strange. However, The Big Gundown I believe is Zorn's first real significant album. Came just after his game piece works(heard a few they're ok), and is the second in line of his tribute works. However, to call this piece a tribute album is not fair at all. Even if based off of Morricone's melodies, this is definitely a Zorn masterpiece, there is no mistaking it.

As rumor said, Zorn absolutely didn't want to do this. He agreed only to do it because of the studio funding. One can tell, Zorn definitely wanted to make these songs something more than the originals. That's why he enlists everything from duck calls, to gun shots, to orgasmic singing. An extremely electric album but impossible to list the eclecticism in terms of genre. Because it doesn't come from genre, it comes from conceptual ideas, and with Zorn's mastery, it's fully deconstruction, and reconstructed. Very recommended to anybody who wants something that's truly different.

1. Torture Garden - Torture Garden is NOT for the faint at heart. Still to this day, it's one of the heaviest albums I've ever heard. This is very early in Zorn's career(1989, I believe), and I think his first flirtations one one Yamatsuke Eye from Boredoms(which, as legend has it, he met in Tokyo by literally jumping on stage during a Boredoms show, and playing saxaphone with their music). It also has avant-garde mastermind Fred Frith(whom is just as important, if not more, than Zorn himself, but for an early era), Bill Frisell, Joey Baron(massively underrated drummer), Bill Frisell(another avant-garde luminary), and Wayne Horvitz(know little of, but, as I hear, another).

Essentially, Naked City was what it was meant to be. 5 of the most cutting edge noise/avant-jazz performers under the influence of the genius John Zorn. Experimenting in Napalm Death territory, and it comes off fantastically. Torture Garden is a visceral, eclectic, masterpiece one of which I don't believe ever has been topped. Dark, chaotic, humorous, and brilliant. All songs less than 30 seconds, and within have packed in a number of melodies that would suffice many bands an entire album. It's dense, rapid, and insane. Not for the weak of heart, but definitely one of the most important albums you never heard of.

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Notice no inclusion of Masada works. Which may seem odd because it's universally considered Zorn's masterpiece. Reason is, though, there's so much Masada it's hard to decide what's best. I've not listened enough to really root out what is the best Masada, and doing so could probably be a list of it's own(Which may be another thing for another day).
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Last edited by Ska Lagos Jew Sun Ra; 01-27-2011 at 11:29 AM. Reason: IAO review edited a tad for a strange misphrasing.
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Old 01-26-2011, 04:11 PM   #2 (permalink)
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Very interesting list! I own several Zorn albums but none of these, though I do own Naked City and Grand Guignol so I guess I'm pretty much covered as far as Torture Garden goes. I've never even heard of the other nine albums on the list and am looking forward to checking them out. Magick and Six Litanies for Heliogabalus seem particularly intriguing to me.
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Old 01-26-2011, 06:21 PM   #3 (permalink)
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Kristallnacht is so haunting, definitely my favorite Zorn album. I've heard all of these except New Traditions in East Asian Bar Bands and Radio. Great write ups, man.
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Old 01-26-2011, 11:44 PM   #4 (permalink)
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Hay guys,
I am heeso.
All of the list is very interesting but i like first two.I am specially like these two albums.thanks.
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Old 01-27-2011, 01:10 AM   #5 (permalink)
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No Masada?

I think the best thing I've heard that he takes part in is Prima Materia - Peace on Earth.

To me, Torture Garden in fun but it's also just kind of silly.
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Old 01-27-2011, 08:03 AM   #6 (permalink)
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To me, Torture Garden in fun but it's also just kind of silly.
I personally like the humor in Torture Garden. The sardonic fun loving nature of it very much typifies Zorn's unique outlook. While Zorn is very much giving homage to the hardcore style, he's obviously mocking the hell out of the super serious macho attitude of it.

I mean, take a look at this photo of Naked City on wiki:



Doesn't look like a group of people who would take writing "I'm a badass, and I'm going to kick your ass" music seriously.
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Old 01-27-2011, 10:11 AM   #7 (permalink)
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I personally like the humor in Torture Garden.
I almost always dislike it when avant garde music tries to be funny. Leave the humor to Weird Al.
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Old 01-27-2011, 10:43 AM   #8 (permalink)
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I almost always dislike it when avant garde music tries to be funny. Leave the humor to Weird Al.
It's not explicitly trying to be funny like "Ha ha this is a joke so laugh" funny. It's just approaching machismo, which gets silly enough, in a sarcastic way. However, the sillyness is what gives it it's unique flavor. Zorn obviously has a humor about what he does, and himself. To express that in his music is only healthy honesty.
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Terence Hill, as recently confirmed during an interview to an Italian TV talk-show, was offered the role but rejected it because he considered it "too violent". Dustin Hoffman and John Travolta declined the role for the same reason. When Al Pacino was considered for the role of John Rambo, he turned it down when his request that Rambo be more of a madman was rejected.
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Old 01-27-2011, 05:46 PM   #9 (permalink)
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Thanks for reducing Zorn`s 60 albums down to something more graspable - if any musician needed a beginner`s guide here, it`s him !

I`m going to take your advice and start with The Bribe, if I can find it, as some of that other stuff sounds pretty unsettling.

Zorn comes across very well in the interview clip, doesn`t he ? He expresses himself really clearly and is happy to talk about some quite banal influences, which a lot of composers would turn their nose up at. I mean, fancy paying attention to cartoon music; that would never occur to me.
Actually, when he talked about growing up with the tv on, he reminded me of the guys from The Tubes, who used to say the same thing, although they took the influence and ran with it in a different direction.
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Old 01-27-2011, 05:59 PM   #10 (permalink)
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I honestly don't feel Zorn has a bias against anything. Probably what makes him such an interesting composer, but keeps him in infinite obscurity.
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