AMN Reviews: John Zorn – Beyond Good and Evil – Simulacrum Live (2020; Tzadik)

Simulacrum is John Zorn’s progressive / thrash metal band. It consists of John Medeski on organ, Kenny Grohowski on drums, and Matt Hollenberg on guitar. Notable in his absence is Zorn, though he has been taking on more and more of a composer role in recent years across several of his projects.

This is the seventh release from the group and the first one that is live. The studio recordings came out between 2015 and 2017, and the group toured in 2018 and 2019. I was lucky enough to see their Chicago performance, which was a blast of complex energy – the group is all about labyrinthine compositions played at speed. This set is from their 2019 performance in New Haven and features cuts from four of the studio albums, with the majority from their debut.

At first blush, the aspect of Beyond Good and Evil that jumped out at me is its overall recording quality and clarity. Some of the Simulacrum studio albums have a slightly muddy mix that hides the details of Medeski’s and Hollenberg’s contributions. But here you can easily follow the lines of both.  Medeski’s gritty swirling and angular soloing is contrasted with Hollenberg’s power chords and brief leads. If anything, Hollenberg is most unleashed of the three as he follows Zorn’s frameworks but subtlely diverges in how he carries out his solos. Grohowski is an absolute monster behind the kit, taking 90’s technical metal drumming to a new level with his jazz background. Indeed, the jazz (and even blues) influences shine through as well in one or two tracks, while soundtrack-like atmospherics can be found in several passages.

Even though I will be the first to admit that not all of Zorn’s material is essential (it is often brilliant nonetheless), I would not recommend skipping this release. Beyond Good and Evil is not just more of the same. It takes the Simulacrum catalog in a few new directions, while providing a full frontal assault from a trio with a staggering but knotty live presence.