Album Review: John Zorn – The Crucible


John Zorn is a living legend…an incredibly prodigious, diligent living legend. What’s more, his greatness seems to be like a gravitational pull, drawing in more greatness from every corner of the earth. And in his eighth (yes I said eighth) release of the year, he brings the Moonchild Trio back for a fourth album of hardcore mysticism.

For those that don’t know Zorn, he’s a MacArthur Fellowship Genius Grant recipient, an avant-garde saxophonist, a composer of everything from punk-jazz to klezmer. He operates the label Tzadik, which brings together Zorn’s talented friends and music from around the world. In 2006, Zorn put together vocalist Mike Patton, bassist Trevor Dunn and drummer Joey Baron. Leading the three in their music, they managed to put together Zorn’s love of hardcore and his keen knowledge of jazz. 2007’s Moonchild release Six Litanies for Heliogabalus was one of, if not the, best album of the year, and The Crucible follows directly in its footsteps.

The howl on opening track “Almadel” is piercingly difficult to figure out at first. Is that Patton’s scream or Zorn’s alto? But, after some review, it’s definitely both, fused together alchemically. Some might find Patton’s voice familiar and for good reason. He’s handled lead vox for Faith No More, Tomahawk, Dillinger Escape Plan, and others. But his most notable role may have been as leader of the ridiculous experimental metal group Mr. Bungle. Patton’s kind of a male Bjork, flip-flopping his voice like some feral creature, bracing between inhuman growls and absurd whoops. After the howling subsides, Dunn and Baron lock into an airtight, gravelly groove. Dunn, also a Mr. Bungle ex-pat and oft-collaborator with the Melvins, crunches along while Baron (a noted avant-garde drummer who has played with Stan Getz, Dizzy Gillespie and others) pops at the snare.

“Shapeshifting” has Patton sort of singing a melody in sort of words that remain indiscernible after repeat listens. However the effect is the same. This sort of mystery is exactly what Zorn had in mind when composing and working with Moonchild. His noted interest in magic and alchemy has been reappearing more and more on recent albums.

On Tzadik’s site, Zorn writes that “9×9” is a “Led Zeppelin influenced track” and it certainly does not fail to live up to that. While the musicianship remains tight (especially with the guest guitar-playing by the astounding Marc Ribot), the tune just doesn’t fit in with the rest of the album. It’s too clean, too…understandable to be a Moonchild track.

Luckily, “Hobgoblin” follows, with Zorn’s sax and Patton’s scream again doing their call-and-response thing, each trying to mimic each other. Suddenly, though, Baron drops into a quick Latin rhythm and Patton starts beatboxing. Much like Mr. Bungle, Moonchild revels trading rhythms and genres at the drop of a hat. This is perhaps most successful as “Witchfinder” kicks into gear, the Masada-influenced, klezmer-esque drumming of Baron underscoring an almost math-rock bass line.

Closing track “The Initiate” seems to hit the closest to Zorn’s home. At once, it sounds like it could be the back line for a jazz jam (put through a couple of distortion pedals), or a Naked City piece. Naked City was one of Zorn’s first composed movements into metal and grindcore, a group that also featured Baron’s drumming. No matter how far Zorn experiments out into the ether, he always keeps grounded in the same place. And that place is always breathtaking, full of weird wonderment, amazing power and lithe musicianship.

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