AMN Reviews: John Zorn – The Painted Bird (2016; Tzadik)

The Painted Bird is the fourth album in John Zorn‘s collaboration with organist John Medeski, drummer Kenny Grohowski, and guitarist Matt Hollenberg. Often referred to as Simulacrum, the trio provides a technical-metal take on Zorn’s compositions. Here, Zorn mixes things up with the inclusion of Ches Smith on congas and voudou drums, as well as Kenny Wollesen on vibes. The result is not the pure heaviness of the trio’s debut – instead, the tracks as a whole split the difference between that and something more reminiscent of Zorn’s Book of Angels series.

Wolleson, in particular, adds color to the forceful elements provided by Grohowski and Hollenberg. For example, the three combine to create a heavy blues feel on the slow-paced opener, Snakeskin.  On the other hand, Medeski takes a leading role on the faster Plague, while the vibes mostly accompany relentless guitar riffs. Another standout track, Comet, features speed-picking and Zorn’s trademark angular lines. The result is a sense of urgency and discordance throughout, but this comes across as being intentional and highly-composed. Night is reminiscent of the trio’s first album, with Wolleson providing an opening theme, which is joined by the requisite metallic riffing. Wolleson and Smith combine for a busy interlude over this. But for the most part, Smith’s contributions are muted and difficult to pick out, especially when appearing alongside Grohowski’s hyperactive drumming. Missal, the final track, is an example of Zorn’s Masada themes wending their way into his other works. Nonetheless, the undistorted guitar themes with a Middle-Eastern flare are a welcome foil to the barely-constrained aggression on the rest of the album.

Ranging from three to eight minutes, the offerings on The Painted Bird are likely to please those who enjoyed the Simulacrum album. While a handful of metal cliches remain, they are tempered by the expansion of the lineup into a quintet. Nonetheless, even with the inclusion of a few conventional elements, there has never been a metal album that takes this particular musical direction as a whole.