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I am about to recommence my reviewing endeavor of John Zorn's complete body of work, but by virtue of its extraordinary scale I think it can branch off into its own thread.
I dunno how many people would be interested enough to actively follow such a journal, but I'm taking it up anyway. Maybe someone else would become a fan. Anyway I've got my playlist here with like 400 albums including collaborations, so I'ma hit that shuffle albums option and listen to whatever comes up first and remove it from the list until it's completely exhausted.
For now you may revisit the few I did already in my journal,
Spoiler for Elegy:
This album was one of the ones from Zorn that I'd read and heard a lot about before I started to explore his discography. It features a few guest musicians, most notably Mike Patton on vocals. This was another reason I'd seen a lot about it, as I was already a huge Patton fan and checking out stuff he'd been involved with. Trey Spruance is in there too.
This album has a diverse range of sounds and influences, from chamber music to ambient, sound-collage to avant-garde (you know, whatever that means in a general sense). It has an overall chamber/orchestral sound to it, created by a wide array of instruments such as flutes, viola, guitar, percussion, to name a few, and the use of turntables and samples.
It is a tribute to French activist Jean Genet. The album is a short one, under 30 minutes, consisting of four file-card compositions, all named after a color (Blue, Yellow, Pink, Black). The first two tracks are very downtempo throughout, featuring incredibly sparse instrumentation and even sparser vocals. "Pink" starts out a bit more raucous but soon retreats to the more lax chamber sounds of the first two, albeit not for long. It breaks into a sample heavy piece after about four minutes in, with crashing waves, and ethnic vocals. Patton maintains his "creepy breathing" vocals as well, soon to be accompanied again by the rest of the band. Six minutes in dynamics start to get a little crazy, with thumping percussive moments alongside squealing sound effects, shifting from this back to the chamber music multiple times. It goes on like this for the rest of the track. The closer, "Black", is my favorite here. A very unsettling atmospheric track featuring some throat singing by Patton (I assume) and other dramatic vocal movements. The atmosphere for this one grows very dark with rattling chains, scraping, choral samples, distorted guitar, and an overall feeling of anxiety. A great way to close the album, in contrast with the "easier" chamber music from the first three tracks.
This is generally a quiet album, that seems to rely on the sparseness. Not one of the more accessible ones from Zorn's catalogue, but also one that's not at all too hard to digest.
Spoiler for Early Recordings:
First Recordings: 1973
Throwing it back to 1973, here is (as the title suggests) John Zorn's first recordings. He says this is the craziest stuff he’s ever done, and while I have no room to agree as I've not listened to every single bit of his work, I can agree that this is on the weirder side. It’s all weird isn't it though? This is an abrasive and somewhat hard to digest collection at just under 80 minutes, but remains fascinating for any fan of Zorn or experimental music alike. Just think about this, these are the very first recordings of what would become a renowned musical genius, one of the most prolific artists of our time.
The first work here, “Mikhail Zoetrope”, a three part bedroom experiment of sonic madness, is particularly what he referred to as his craziest stuff. His trademark saxaphone expertise is shown throughout, along with improvisation from a lot of found instrumentation (pots and pans, other kitchenware, a vacuum cleaner, his television, anything he had at his disposal), and there’s a good amount of nonsensical vocals from the young man. In the end, it’s a lot of beating on random objects, squealing, raspberries, television on loud volume, and radical sax noodling. Avant-garde to the max.
I really enjoyed “Conquest of Mexico”. Apparently this was what was left of a soundtrack he would be putting together during his last year in college. This recording is a kind of electronic/psychedelic experiment, much more my speed than “Mikhail Zoetrope”. Zorn’s approach on this piece is akin to what he’d do on The Big Gundown. My favorite part of this album for sure.
“Wind Ko/La” is a basic string improv. Hammering out notes on what appears to be either a guitar or bass. “Automata of Al-Jazari” features a bunch of film quotes and samples with little, bizarre interludes in between. “Variations on A Theme by Albert Ayler” is another highlight. More sax shredding, distorted with all sorts of effects, fuzz, reverb, delay, the works. He really puts every effect he possibly can to work on this one. Obviously a tribute to jazz musician Albert Ayler.
“Sounds for people that are fed up with music”
It’s not his best work, really nowhere near it, but what do you expect? This is an interesting listen any way you look at it, and can give us a slight glimpse of what he’d be doing later on. I doubt I’ll ever listen to “Mikhail Zoetrope” in full again, but “Variations on A Theme” and “Conquest of Mexico” will surely receive more listening. It’s no wonder this kid’s parents thought he was crazy.
Spoiler for Locus Solus:
Locus Solus (1983)
Another early work, ten years after the first recordings. I don’t know how chronological this endeavor will prove to be… that doesn’t make sense, chronological is an absolute isn’t it? I’ve already dropped the ball! I will be diving into his early Parachute game pieces in due time, I just really didn’t feel like listening to those today.
This is an improvisation double album featuring four sides, five trios, and four different styles all around, and is another weird one. Members of no wave phenomena DNA are featured throughout, so that’s going on.
Side 1: John Zorn - Saxaphone/Christian Marclay - Samples, Turntable/Peter Blegvad - Vocals.
Tracks one through eight utilize this lineup, and a bizarre, jazzy style of noise. Samples play a big role here, much like a lot of First Recordings. With the vocals in the mix, this is very reminiscent of bands like DNA, but with turntables doing what the other instruments would be doing, making a whole lot more unique sounds and noises. A brash cacophony is created by Marclay, and the mayhem is the focus of this side of the album. Zorn’s brass work is present at times, but not a central point of the music, a good example being “Juan Talks it Out of His System”. The vocals are not up front either. They’re delivered in a spoken word style, often drenched with echos and other effects. I find it to be an enjoyable movement.
Side 2: John Zorn - Saxaphone/Arto Lindsay - Guitar, vocals/Anton Fier - Percussion.
And I thought side 1 had a DNA-esque style. This lineup makes that comparison much more obvious. But of course, Arto Lindsay of none other than DNA fame is bringing his guitar improv prowess along. Here we lose the outrageous noise brought to us with the turntables and replace it with traditional instrumentation (guitar and drums). The band is acting and improvising as a whole, with no focus on any particular area. All performers are firing on all cylinders, making such a wonderful mess of randomness. The vocals are used more as an instrument, one with the music, than the first side. Odd, abrupt shouts for the most part. Imagine a jazzier DNA, with their no-wave sound increased to higher extremes. Anton Fier (of the Lounge Lizards and the Feelies) is replaced by Mark E. Miller for another set of the same style. Very enjoyable.
Side 3: John Zorn - Saxaphone/Ikue Mori - Drums, electronics/Wayne Horvitz - Organ.
Zorn now is joined by DNA drummer Ikue Mori, we’ll see more of her later in the journal as well, and Wayne Horvitz. This side is the strangest of the album hands down. Whereas the rest off it is DNAish free improv/no wave, this is a new kind of animal. Largely due to Mori’s electronics. This side is less frantic and abrupt, and features a psychedelic array of sounds that just seem out of place in reality. The drumming is very loose, and Zorn’s sax is at constant work. But once again, electronics give this side a more strange feel. All together though, it is very enjoyable, again. My favorite side of the four.
Side 4: John Zorn - Saxaphone/Whiz Kid - Turntables/Mark E. Miller - Drums.
Miller returns to the drumset for the final side, but the music is here is different than his previous set, not drastically though. Now with Whiz Kid delivering some radical turntablism, giving an almost industrial feel at times. You can hear this odd industrial jazz sound in “Disco Volante” and more in “Thunderball”, which also features some tribal style drumming. Even a proto hip-hop track in “White Zombie”. This side is like a combination of all sides two and three, and definitely the most varied. I said side three was my favorite but it may actually be this. I don’t know, they’re both really fantastic.
This is a very good early release from Zorn, one of the best I’ve heard. Would recommend to fans of any sort of experimental music, as well as fans of no wave.
Spoiler for Ganryu Island:
Ganryu Island (1984)
This time around, John Zorn teams up with Japanese musician Sato Michihiro for another improv album. Sato is a well renowned Tsugaru-jamisen musician, a style of Japanese music focused around the shamisen.
The shamisen, which translates to "three strings", is a three stringed (no way?) traditional Japanese instrument, which is played with a pick in a somewhat percussive fashion.
So I guess this album has a lot of Tsugaru-jamisen influence, which is pretty evident. These two make an interesting pair. Zorn, as usual, brings his free-jazz sax mastery to the table, but when coupled with Sato's shamisen shredding, we're left with a different sound and feel entirely, not that you can't hear the jazz influence. It's a very Japanese sounding album... I guess. Is that a good way to describe it? Like, if you just put this on for anyone without them knowing who or what it was, they'd probably call it some sort of Asian music.
I'm not familiar with Sato's other work, but apparently he left the traditional Tsugaru-jamisen style right before this to pursue shamisen improvisation. He's the highlight of this album, in my opinion. He displays a great deal of technicality and talent on his instrument, and keeps a steady rhythm of plucking throughout. Though he's also not afraid to mix it up with some off-kilter melodies and tempos. I'm also not familiar with how this instrument is played, but there are some moments on this album that make me interested to learn more. It seems like there's a lot of pinch harmonics and stretching and scratching, even some percussion on the body of the instrument. Zorn's brass is great, using all the techniques we've come to recognize from him, distinct squealing and chirps and the like. Vocals are incredibly sparse, a grunt or quick shout on occasion, but it accents the music just as well. I believe it is Sato doing these? Zorn performs some game calls as well.
This almost doesn't sound improvised to me, as the shamisen keeps such a perfect flow through the whole album, and also blends very well with the brass. These two were in sync no doubt about it. There's no absolute high or low points of the album, but it functions very well as a whole. Another highly enjoyable release. Can Zorn do no wrong? Okay, "Mikhail Zoetrope" was a little much, but even he admits that it was just a lot failed musical attempts thrown together.
Spoiler for Naked City - Naked City:
Naked City (1990)
Wanted to listen to this today so....
This is one of Zorn's most recognizable albums if I do say so myself. The first to come from his Naked City lineup, consisting of him on sax, Bill Frisell on guitar, Fred Frith with the bass, Joey Baron drumming, Wayne Horvitz on keys, and Yamantaka Eye with guest vocals. That lineup sounds like an experimentalist's wet dream, does it not? This album surely is. An overall jazz feel, often crossing into squealing hyperfast grindcore, along with elements of western and surf music, and whatever else you want in there. An essential album in my eyes.
This album pays homage to Zorn's influences including some renditions of works by Ennio Morricone and Ornette Coleman (and we know he'll be doing that some more), and some film music like "Chinatown" and "A Shot in the Dark".
After starting off with the cinematic and fun "Batman", a Morricone take is underway with "The Sicilian Clan". A very smooth and mellow track, with great keyboard work and a nice bassline. "You Will Be Shot" is the step into that grind territory. So much going on in only a minute and a half. Extreme bursts of blastbeats and radical sax squealing brought all together with a heavy surf riff. It even makes it's way into slow country styling after the mayhem. I think "Latin Quarter" was the first Zorn composition I'd ever heard, and I'll always love it. A great rocking jazz tune, with some excellent guitar playing from Frisell. One of the most accessible tracks on the album. Next is the band's take on A Shot in the Dark from film music legend Henry Mancini. This one makes good use of the keyboard and it's effects, opening up with some freaky psychedelic chaos, before reaching that surfy, jazzy Pink Panther sound. The next two tracks shift styles frantically and quickly, between the chaotic jazz grind we have moments of funk, downtempo guitar, free jazz, and rock. "I Want to Live" is another cover, pretty mellow jazz, I guess. I'm not very well versed in different styles of jazz to know what to call it. "Lonely Woman" is an Ornette Coleman song, with some cool keys added to the mix.
Bring on the grindcore! A series of "hardcore miniatures" featuring the outrageous screaming, growling, grunting, and gurgling of Yamantaka Eye. This is quite a blistering movement. The song titles here spawned two band names, Fuck the Facts and Blood Duster. An average grind fan would be happy with some variety here.
Phew, that was hardcore. Naked City does that though (see: Grand Guignol). "Chinatown" is another film song. Beginning with some quiet, slow avant-garde, before the smooth sax comes in. Another mellow track. The mood is broken however by the extreme cacophony of "Punk China Doll". This one is absolute chaos, for a minute. Genres on this album are shifting constantly. The second half of this song is an atmospheric piece from Horvitz. "N.Y. Flat Top Box" is a quick little western song, with half second blasting moments in there. "Saigon Pickup" is another favorite, and a beautiful piano melody. Pian, then loud sax attack, a surf riff, and more jazz, some loungey stuff, surf riff, piano melody. It sounds like a lot, but it's another one of the easy tracks on the album in my view.
Next is a fantastic and fairly straightforward cover of the James Bond theme, aside from a bit of harsh free jazz in the middle. "Den of Sins" starts with more unadulterated chaos, but moves on to something else entirely, and moves back into chaos. That's one thing about this album, it doesn't sit still. First time listeners should expect to be surprised often. I know I was. More film scores with "Contempt", this one's a bit heavy, with drumming that could be suitable on a doom metal album. The heaviness continues with "Graveyard Shift". There's a riff pretty early on, I swear it's a god damn mid-paced black metal riff. But funk takes over. Then jazzy dub. "Inside Straight" is a basic one, some good ol' jazz.
I can't stress this enough, this album is bipolar, genre splicing, mood shattering. I can't tell you what to expect going in, better to just jump in without expectations, as any you have would probably be destroyed from that very first radical genre shift.
Another one of my favorite Zorn albums though, highly recommended.
Spoiler for Painkiller - Guts of a Virgin:
Painkiller - Guts of A Virgin (1991)
Here's the first release from Zorn's Painkiller lineup. Him on sax and doing vocals this time around, Bill Laswell on bass, and former Napalm Death drummer/Scorn mastermind Mick Harris behind the kit, also delivering some gut wrenching vocals. This is similar to Naked City's jazz/grind output. But while that album veers into dozens of other styles almost constantly, this one stays with their consistently bass heavy, avant-jazz/grindcore, but also displays a lot of elements of doom/sludge metal. It slows down a bit throughout.
!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! Zorn screams at the top of his lungs to kick this album into gear immediately, dunno what he says first, but I can make out "OH MY GOD!!!", and just like that, we're introduced to the doomy approach that Painkiller will often take. Considerably heavier than Naked City, thanks to Laswell's loud, distorted bass riffing and Harris's deathgrind drum style. He's seriously a monster at the kit, and always has been. "Portent" is a highlight of this album. Starting with a driving sludge riff that progressively speeds up to chaotic tempos after Zorn's sax is introduced, slows back down, and repeats the formula. This is full of awesome noise rock style bass lines that sound oh so nice when coupled with the heavy drumming and jazz.
While obviously not as diverse and frantic as Naked City, this feels more focused and dare I say mature. They give you a groove and keep at it. This is some of the heaviest stuff to come from Zorn's discography. Would recommend to fans of sludgy noise rock and free jazz.