Despite being relatively underground in the general world of music, John Zorn has established himself as one of the most important avant-garde musicians ever. With one of the most prolific discographies in music—accounting to about 90+ solo albums and 50+ side projects in genres ranging from classical to film score work to jazz to metal to free and structured improvisation and (seemingly) everything in between—Zorn has simply conquered music, like a sax-wielding Alexander the Great.
Now, this is where we have to tread carefully. I can’t admit to having listened to 140+ albums by this man; I simply don’t have the time (or wherewithal to even find some of them), and on top of all that, a lot of his music doesn’t really apply to his blog. (I doubt that many Heavy Blog listeners would want to listen to such projects like Pool, which consist of structured improvisation that to most ears just sounds like a bunch of noise.) So, to say that this is a starter kit for all of Zorn’s work is a misnomer; this is more of a crash course in the few times that Zorn has touched upon the metal genre, however lightly. Warning, though: this is going to be some weird, goofy stuff. Enjoy.
Painkiller – Guts of a Virgin/Buried Secrets
Painkiller is a Zorn side project that essentially combines grindcore with avant-garde/free jazz elements. It sounds simple, right? It’s not. Guts of a Virgin and Buried Secrets (the band’s debut EPs) are essentially schizophrenia put to music. The band employs incredible speed, wild shrieks and yells, and some interesting lo-fi elements, with Zorn’s crazy alto sax playing on top of it to make something that sounds truly disturbing.
Part of enjoying Painkiller is to understand the sheer wackiness behind it. At its base level, Guts of a Virgin/Buried Secrets takes the most exaggerated aspects of both of these genres and clashes them together until they work. While the musicians involved are serious about their art, this is obviously at some level a source of humor. The shrieks and calls seem like random noises and more of a performance than any semblance of actual lyrics.
If you enjoy free jazz and metal, this is a great album to get into.
If you find Painkiller’s music to be unapproachable, or just plain bad (a valid opinion, honestly), some of John Zorn’s more recent solo works might fit you better, as his output of late isn’t too experimental. Inferno personally reminds me most of Opeth’s Ghost Reveries album, what with its haunting use of organ and the occult themes that surround it. (Seriously, it’s as if Opeth had decided to score a ritual of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn; it’s creepy).
Inferno works on a lot of levels, though, despite its overall simplicity. The album at times feels like a perfect blend of rock and jazz music, as the notes played sound haunting, but the looseness of the entire album’s tracks feel more like a jazz album. It’s full of awesome solos and spooky soundscapes, but also moments of distinct melancholy, all of it Zorn’s interpretation of the work of Swedish occultist August Strindberg.
If you’re a metal fan that wishes to explore jazz a bit, Inferno is a perfect place to start, as it won’t leave you completely alienated from traditional metal sounds.
Naked City – Torture Garden
Torture Garden is the debut album by Zorn’s Naked City side project, and is most similar to the works of the Painkiller project. In fact, while listening to Torture Garden—or really any of the early Naked City albums—you’ll probably think that you’re listening to Guts of a Virgin. After all, they both employ level of grindcore that borders on audible insanity, and Zorn plays his sax like a deranged Ornette Coleman over it all. But, trust me: these are two very different projects.
See, while Painkiller only sticks really to grindcore and jazz, Naked City plays the entire spectrum of popular music along with the latter genres. If every member of Mr. Bungle took bath salts and then proceeded to write an album, they’d probable be pretty close to what Torture Garden is like. Sometimes the band plays straightforward rock, or even a few moments of lounge and surf music—and even a brief interlude of a music box tune—but it’s all interrupted by frenetic grindcore and free jazz. It’s an album that requires an open mind, and possibly a strong dosage of Thorazine to appreciate.
I believe that while this is a great list for metal listeners looking to try Zorn, it’s nonetheless an injustice to the man’s music, considering the huge array of genres he’s tried out and the sheer quality of his music. If you’re interested, I highly recommend to listen to these albums as well:
- Naked City—Naked City
- Painkiller—Execution Ground
- Templars: In Sacred Blood
- The Crucible