AMN Reviews: Catching Up with John Zorn’s Chaos Magick

In the current phase of his long career, saxophonist, composer, and statesman of the avant-garde John Zorn has focused on composing music for others to perform and record. While he still engages in these activities himself, his role as “musical director” of a sort allows him to work with a wide variety of like-minded musicians in his broad circle of collaborators.

Since 2015, one of his more iconic groups has been the organ power trio Simulacrum, consisting of organist John Medeski, drummer Kenny Grohowski, and guitarist Matt Hollenberg. After a series of hard-hitting releases that combine technical-metal wizardry with Zorn’s penchant for labyrinthine melodic structures rooted in Middle-Eastern folk music, he formed a new ensemble by adding the virtuosic pianist Brian Marsella to the mix. Thus, Chaos Magick was born.

Last year, this group released two albums seven months apart. But like all things Zorn, this particular branch of his musical tree was easily overlooked at that time. The excuse is simple – Zorn does a lot, and staying on top of his output (often an album or two per month) is not easy. Nonetheless, in the spirit of better-late-than-never, here are a few words.

TLDR: If you like Simulacrum and other recent Zorn efforts, do not hesitate.

John Zorn – Chaos Magick (2021; Tzadik)

Chaos Magick is the self-titled debut, and immediately invokes some of the knottier passages of Simulacrum. But it never takes on the in-your-face crunch of the predecessor band. Instead, Zorn employs a softer form of power through complex lines and a more retro-jazz feel. The dual-keyboard lineup also evokes the jazz fusion of the 70s. That is not to say that there isn’t a fair share of shredding from all four members, just that it appears in a different context.

The addition of Marsella distributes the workload, giving Medeski and Hollenberg room to focus on textures and accentuations rather than going all-out. Nonetheless, many of the pieces are structurally similar to those of Simulacrum, with certain themes and motifs (or variations thereof) repeating. Zorn may or may not have a formula per se, but much of the album involves arrangements that are centered around complex rhythms, spiraling leads, and noisy interludes presented in various orderings.

Where Chaos Magick finds its unique voice is in some of the later tracks. These feature more abstract compositions, such as Medeski and Marsella sharing leads while accompanied by soft chording by Hollenberg, cymbal work from Grohowski, and a spoken-word passage. Another piece includes a dense solo from Grohowski (who, by the way, remains a colossal drummer and seems to grow extra limbs when behind his kit). The album ends with a blissful track of Hollenberg plucking undistorted arpeggiated chords over keyboard meandering and jaggedly busy percussion.

John Zorn – The Ninth Circle (2021; Tzadik)

The Ninth Circle heads largely in the same direction as Chaos Magick, heavy, loud, and almost overbearingly intricate. Marsella employs the Fender Rhodes, piano, and mellotron on this release, however, which results in slightly different textures. The album consists of 9 cantos, inspired by the story of Orpheus and Eurydice – that of a husband who literally went to the underworld in an attempt to rescue his wife from death, and would have succeeded if not for his own lack of faith.

Canto III is wonderfully disjointed, with chaotic passages that vary between structure and free improvisation. Hollenberg and Medeski both solo and generate noise, with the former both going outside as well as playing in a bluesy manner. Marsella includes a brief, classically-oriented piano line on three occasions that is so unexpected amidst the general havoc that it generates a form of cognitive dissonance. Canto VIII, on the other hand, takes from the Simulacrum playbook with heavy riffs, organ chords, and angular breaks before heading in a jazz fusion direction. Never content to stay in one play for long, the track reprises to keyboard-drenched hard rock.

This pair of Chaos Magick albums can be thought of collectively as one longer musical statement. If there is an option to try both, do so – while similar to one another, each brings its own unique charm.