AMN Reviews: John Zorn – The Garden of Earthly Delights (2017; Tzadik)

8351Time flies. Two years ago I wrote a review of John Zorn‘s Simulacrum, the first release of his organ-based heavy metal trio consisting of John Medeski (Medeski, Martin, and Wood) on said organ, Kenny Grohowski (Abraxas) on drums, and Matt Hollenberg (Cleric) on guitar. And just last month their sixth album came out.

This time around they are joined by Trevor Dunn (Mr. Bungle, Secret Chiefs 3) on bass for all tracks, as well as New-York-based experimentalist Sara Serpa on occasional vocals. The addition of these individuals, along with the contributions of Medeski, help shift the overall sound of The Garden of Earthly Delights away from the all-out technical metal / math rock attack of Grohowski and Hollenberg into a direction reflecting more jazz, blues, and atmospherics. Case in point, Dunn provides wandering bass lines while Hollenberg takes it down a notch and offers a handful of undistorted melodies. Medeski uses organ chording and slow themes to accentuate this approach. Serpa’s wordless vocals are used minimally, mainly on the final track. Once again, Zorn serves as composer, and does not perform.

But there remains a tension to this release – a push and pull between two sides of Zorn. On one hand, you have his “extreme” outlook, characterized in the past by his Painkiller releases. On the other, you have his more recent guitar trio work with Bill Frisell. These styles are not so much combined or mashed together, but integrated into a comprehensive whole. Overriding all of this is another type of tension – a sense of foreboding and unease. The addition of Dunn holding down the low end allows Medeski, Grohowski, and Hollenberg to produce near-ambient layers on top of one another.

There is a lot to like here if you are a fan of any of the aforementioned musicians. Perhaps the heavier parts please these ears the most, but even the slower sections contain labyrinthine exposes of Zorn’s idiosyncratic compositional approach as played by his veteran collaborators. Needless to say, there are plenty of ideas in The Garden of Earthly Delights, and multiple listens will be necessary to unravel its complexity.