The saxophone has become an increasingly en vogue addition to the extreme music formula. Ever since John Zorn bleated and honked over grindcore and avant-garde metal with Naked City and Painkiller, a growing crop of younger bands have demonstrated how to masterfully incorporate a jazz staple into heavier compositions. The sparsity of such bands should come as no surprise; for every band like Brain Tentacles, Shining and (most recently) EX EYE, there’s a spattering of artists who fail to effectively integrate the woodwind into their music, whether it be through a small blunder on an experimental track or a complete misfire from a permanent member. The reasoning is simple—while apparent opposites can attract, they often don’t. Saxophones and metal have been traditionally cut from different cloths, and while the instrument might compliment the genre better than bagpipes and didgeridoos, it’s often times too bold an instrument for bands to grapple with when they attempt to incorporate its sound into their playbook.
Even so, groups like Merkabah provide ample evidence of the similarities these disparate musical elements share. Beyond the extraordinary range of emotions and musical themes that can be achieved by both saxophones and metal, both exude an air of powerful liberation. John Coltrane may not have worn corpse paint, and Ornette Coleman never threw up the devil horns. But players like these demonstrated an early version of the fearlessness and finesse that would mark metal’s framework. Though pioneers of avant-garde jazz and metal have have long been discounted as nothing but noisemakers, there’s an undeniable artistry to experimenting with saxophones and tritones that simultaneously produces some of the most rewarding musical intensity available from any genre.
Merkabah understand this dichotomy of measured performance and unbridled aggression, and they’ve kept it at the core of their compositional focus as they’ve honed their sound over the past several years. And it’s been quite a journey for the group, who began to gain much-deserved traction with 2014’s Moloch. From the album’s initial moments to its cacophonous conclusion, listeners were exposed to musical experimentation of the finest order, with roots in noise rock, avant-garde metal and experimental jazz accented by forays into post-metal, psychedelic rock and progressive territory. It was a bold synthesis in the vein of The Iceburn Collective and Masada-meets-Naked City, produced by a band that knew exactly how it wanted to structure and unfurl its music so as to preserve all of its dense sonic complexities.
After three grueling years of anticipation, the band have finally returned with Million Miles, an album which improve upon the band’s formula while also providing further proof of its efficacy. Though the album hits explosive peaks and treacherous sonic valleys, every moment on the record feels beautifully subtle, as if everything is put in its proper place before the listener can even assess where they believe the track is heading. Each piece on the album is engrossing, both for their expansive scopes as well as their careful construction and decomposition. The album ebbs and flows through a myriad of musical moods, never alienating its identity but always exploring new furrows of its psyche. The band’s endeavors are aided by its members cohesive individuality; each player feels invigorated and as if they’re performing on their own accord, while also connecting with one another in a profoundly cohesive manner.
The band wastes no time laying the groundwork for Million Miles with “Solar Surfer,” which catapults into being with aggressive syncopation led by the clobbering blackened romp of drummer Kuba Sokólski. From there, guitarist Gabriel Orłowski and bassist Aleksander Pawłowicz provide a viscous, noisy backdrop of riffs upon which saxophonist Rafał Wawszkiewicz provides an exceptional performance that would make Zorn proud. He draws distinct influence from Klezmer traditions while bring a fresh perspective informed by free jazz and metal’s intricacies, which allows him to weave his playing with the heaviness surrounding him.
It’s an incredible introduction to an equally ambitious album, which the band follows with a bite-sized summary on “Letter of Marque.” The song is an outlier in the track list, clocking in at least a few minutes below the surrounding tracks. This is another key note on the album—there’s more songs with longer run times on Million Miles than any other Merkabah album, yet it’s easily the most enthralling and dynamic installment in their discography thus far. “Zheng Zhilong” opens with a consuming drone, thanks in no small part to the synths, electronics and lap-steel that the band’s members contribute to the track and other moments on the album. It’s a primary example of how the band can rampage through intense webs of crushing noise rock and then seamlessly transition to psychedelic drones comprised of disparate, interlocked instrumental performances. Of course, as the longest track on the album, “Zheng Zhilong” also boasts perhaps the most impressive evolution, slowly building from a teetering powder keg of noise, ambiance and tension into a frenetic display of performative heft. Orłowski, Pawłowicz and Wawszkiewicz lock into a brutal syncopated riff that waltzes atop Sokólski’s drumming, with all but Wawszkiewicz stepping back to allow him to blurt out some truly chilling sax tantrums.
From there, the band essentially coast through the album, though not in the sense they’re phoning it in musically. The band just have such a firm grasp on their strengths, and the path ahead of them that the ideas they tackle feel effortlessly executed to peak perfection. “The Lion’s Throat” is the jazziest cut of the bunch, coming off as the soundtrack to a bar fight in the sleekest noir lounge around. And while “Ourang Medan” initially attempts to snag the “jazziest” title with some third stream flair thrown in, its heightened beauty plummets to a violent end courtesy of some noisy, cymbal-driven outbursts and a dancing, progressive conclusion. “Pitchblende” offers the most violent installment of noise rock of the bunch before “Glaucous Gardens” and closing track “Ex-Imperial” take a sharp turn toward post-metal. Though he primarily plays an anchoring role on the album, Orłowski’s guitar work shines on these two tracks, particularly with his hypnotic tapping throughout the album’s concluding track.
There’s not enough space to explore all of the inner workings of Million Miles, a career-defining work by a band that’s just settling into their prime. Merkabah are incredibly proficient at integrating sax with all manners of heavy music, and they’re comfortably leading the pack of bands aiming to accomplish just that. After garnering interest with Moloch, the quintet didn’t see it fit to rest on their laurels and casually rehash what had already proved successful. Instead, they doubled down on their strengths and challenged themselves to achieve a more complex intersection of their influences and sonic proclivities. The result is an album that should be required listening for anyone who purports to enjoy woodwinds in heavy music, and especially for those who attempt to create such music. But even beyond the band’s expertise in this regard, Million Miles is simply an impressive listen that’s endlessly rich in detail and enjoyment. You’ll be hard-pressed to uncover an experimental metal or rock album this year that covers as much ground and successfully reaches as many heights as Million Miles, another in a long line of success for Merkabah and no doubt a precursor of even greater things to come.
Million Miles is available 11/10 via Instant Classic.