Not so long ago—if 40 years is not so long—a group of friends and I would gather for a solemn once-or-twice-a-year ritual. There was no given date for the event. Instead it was spurred by unusual circumstances, say the bombing of Cambodia or the acquisition of really good drugs. Duly prepared, the friend, now a record producer who had the best stereo system among us as well as the best music collection, would carefully remove John Coltrane’s Ascension from its sleeve, studiously swipe it of dust with a Discwasher pad or some such vinyl accoutrement, and put stylus to groove. The recording is a free-form blowing session, loosely based around clustered, ascending anthems, and features seven horns, two basses and drummer Elvin Jones, the only percussionist capable of standing up to the onslaught. The anthems, more hyper-fanfares, repeated until one of the soloists emerged fully engaged. The music is emotional, exhausting, something like the most soul-shaking scream fest between loved ones you’ve ever experienced. We’d hang suspended while the lp was flipped. Then the primal session would continue. Once complete, the disc would go back in it sleeve, not to emerge again for another year. We loved it, in a way, but couldn’t take it more than that.
I’ve had similar feelings listening to John Zorn’s The Crucible. Embarrassingly intense, confusing and exhausting, it’s at once an explosion of pent-up feeling and a string of curses. The disc’s package hosts a dark series of black-and-white photos of talismanic skulls and a steaming cauldron. There are quotes from occultists Aleister Crowley, philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche and Theater of Cruelty playwright Antonin Artaud (“No one has ever written, painted, sculpted, modeled, built, or invented except literally to get out of hell”). The lyrics, in an indecipherable language, come from a fictional text found in an H.P. Lovecraft novel.
Apart from the incantations, most of what vocalist Mike Patton calls up are screams, growls, blubbering sighs, curses and other audible pandemonium. Often it’s done in unison with Zorn’s alto sax. Alone, Patton’s rants recall the verbal assaults generated by Looney Tunes’ Tazmanian Devil, the old Bugs Bunny adversary. If you’re looking for something soothing, you’ve come to the wrong nightmare.
The disc’s does have its attractions. Bassist Trevor Dunn acts as alchemist, anchoring the rage with something as hard as heavy metal. Joey Baron stirs up enough magic to create the illusion of polish. To hear them rift on “Ineubi” or strike out on “Witchfinder” is to embrace evil itself. Zorn sounds as if he has something to get off his chest. If the primal scream is as recuperative as is suggested, he must have felt pretty good after this session.
The scream– also know as the squeal (and let’s not forget the honk)–has been a sax staple since the advent of R&B. Coltrane brought the scream into a place of emotional and spiritual meaning, not only on Ascension, but throughout his later work. He was upstaged by his own sideman, Pharoah Saunders, who seemed to find a deeper psychological source for his ranting. Other saxophonists have brought a sense of romance to the scream (Gato Barbieri) or social and political outrage (Albert Ayler, Archie Shepp). Zorn seems to be inspired by sheer horror and Patton’s voice only underscores the sense of terror. Still, we can’t help but be attracted to the hard rockin’ assertions of “9×9,” with added guitarist Marc Ribot, on which Patton’s cries and hisses range between Ozzy and Gene Simmons. But much of this music, even more so than its two “Moonchild” predecessors, leaves us cold. Possibly this was Zorn’s aim. The Crucible may truly be music for evil and confused times. But we can’t see pulling it out more than once a year.—Cabbage Rabbit