AMN Reviews: John Zorn – Simulacrum (2015; Tzadik)

8330John Zorn’s legacy as a major force of modern creative music is set in stone at this point. But one factor that continues to set him apart is the remarkable breadth found in his compositions and recordings. From classical to free jazz, to middle-eastern music to controlled-improvisation, to soundtracks and more, Zorn has nearly done it all. He has recorded in these styles on many different occasions with a variety of co-conspirators. Therefore, Simulacrum, featuring an aggressive organ trio, should surprise no one, despite being unlike much of his previous material.

The recording features John Medeski (Medeski, Martin, and Wood) on organ, Kenny Grohowski (Abraxas) on drums, and Matt Hollenberg (Cleric) on guitar. Zorn does not actually play, but is credited with composition and arrangements. Of the three instrumentalists, Hollenberg is well known in the heavy metal community, Grohowski to a lesser extent, and Medeski of course is a frequent Zorn collaborator and an established experimenter. Despite the trio’s varied background, Simulacrum arguably focuses on progressive metal (e.g., Fates Warning, Sleepytime Gorilla Museum, The Dillinger Escape Plan), 90’s technical metal (e.g., Watchtower, Spastic Ink, Cynic, Atheist) and math rock with heavy riffing, busy double-bass drumming, and angular lines.  In particular, if Medeski were replaced by a bassist, Simulacrum would be familiar territory.

But, the heavy organ adds a unique feel, and one not necessarily reminiscent of the pioneering hard-rock work of Deep Purple‘s Jon Lord. Instead, Medeski brings a unique jazz and blues inflection to the mix.  While Hollenberg’s guitar often takes the lead, Medeski occasionally takes over, building tense, swirling themes.  Grohowski mostly avoids blast-beats, and instead relies on punctuated drumming with rapid fills.  As a result, even though the 43 minutes of Simulacrum covers a variety metal tropes, albeit with organ-based atmospherics, the ultimate outcome is a fresh sound.

In true Zorn “if it is worth doing once, itis worth doing a few more times” style, this release is apparently one of at least three written for the trio, with a second already recorded.  It will be interesting to hear what these collaborators can do with another 80-plus minutes of this format.