John Zorn’s Simulacrum – The Garden of Earthly Delights (2017)

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The Garden of Earthly Delights is the sixth album by John Zorn’s Simulacrum, here augmented by bassist Trevor Dunn and vocalist Sara Serpa. The album celebrates the 500th year of the death of Hieronymus Bosch, and is named after one of his triptych paintings – a work which depicts the Garden of Eden on one side, the Last Judgement on the other and a scene in the center with animals, humans and weird plants all seemingly living in a sort of mystical Utopia.

Bosch’s penchant for including surreal scenes, over-sized creatures and oddly at ease monsters interacting with naked humans, set in dark or intensely enlightened landscapes, seems to give permission for the music to follow patterns and fantastical rhythmic changes. All of it makes perfect sense in worlds of varying musical journeys: Simulacrum’s music is as fantastical as the pictures. Given John Zorn’s eclectic, diverse and charismatic ideas of what can be garnered under the musical umbrella, it all makes perfect sense.

The Garden of Earthly Delights, issued via Zorn’s Tzadik label, covers any style you can think of almost, and the only thing holding the listener back is the imagination. You don’t have to know it relates to Bosch or that it is loosely based on fantastical beings and possibilities. The music soon speaks for itself. John Zorn is charismatic, hides himself from view and seems to be only accessible by those to whom he gives projects like the Superb Spike Orchestra or this trio. But Zorn is also clever, because that creates a magic around this composer, arranger and musician which is reflected in the music he oversees unleashed under various projects – each with their own identity and musical stamp.

“Angels and Devils” sets off at a speed and intensity which gives anything following a hard time. The driving, heavy, repetitive theme works well as the opener for The Garden of Earthly Delights. “The Infernal Machine” is theme / section / theme, with John Medeski’s keyboard working overtime and the drumming building up and up into overdrive, with a sudden drop into which the repetitive theme intersperses again. “The Dragon Tree” is of a similar vein with a lot of interaction between percussion, keys and guitars. It also features a gorgeous section where each part is in a different time emphasis – very enjoyable. The middle section introduces a series of repeated notes under which the bass works up a complete storm; Trevor Dunn’s bass line itself is worth listening to for its technical work and depth.

“Paean to the Prince of Hell” is sacred sounding initially, like a hymn introduction, before guitar and percussion work out the theme between them, with Dunn’s bass adding its own voice. John Zorn’s Simulacrum offer a pulled-back beat, then the fairground ride and the manic, driving noise when everyone goes for it, hell for leather. A fulsome track and a noise-some one. “Music of the Flesh” starts with Matt Hollenberg’s guitar, as an eerie atmosphere is set before the percussion builds a soft susurration with echoey interventions from the guitar. Then it builds over a different line from guitar, then a pause, then a gentle section and, finally, everyone in John Zorn’s Simulacrum goes tooth and nail – fighting for supremacy with notes ricocheting and cymbals crashing, before a sudden complete silence and a guitar-led finish over soughing from the percussion.

“Adam And Eve” is interesting. It starts with a gentle rolling up and down key-led tune, under which percussion and bass trip before Hollenberg’s guitar sings out the theme, which is almost balladic. A beautiful and carefully worked piece again, repeated riffs aplenty adding a familiarity amongst the strangeness of it all. Perfectly placed, this is a refuge of a track from John Zorn’s Simulacrum. Then comes “Mirror Image,” announced by screaming guitar under which percussion and then the rest of the instruments take themselves off on a mad dash for the cliff edge. Trevor Dunn’s bass then sets up a lovely, deep rhythmic riff, and the others just keep doing their own manic thing, each taking turns to take the lead over that wonderful, constant bass. “The Garden of Earthly Delights” is strange and eerie, and atmospheric. Deep drums, metallic guitar-sounding tunes and thundering in the distance, interspersed with jaw-dropping screech notes like some banshee reminding you of its malevolent presence. This is not a garden for the faint hearted, nor delightful. This track tries to create a vision, a sense of other worldliness and it works to some extent. What that world is, is entirely up to the imagination of the listener.

“The Circuit” is short, sharp and to the point – the point being a maelstrom of noise, undecided direction and explosive journeys to lord knows where. “Out of the Eternal Sphere” finishes The Garden of Earthly Delights, and begins as a gentle, peaceful, busy number with everyone adding their harmonic and linearly derived phrases. It is enhanced by the vocals of Sara Serpa, whose voice is pure, with a range covering over two octaves on this track. The supporting harmonics are well honed and “The Circuit” is the closest to a traditional ballad as John Zorn’s Simulacrum gets here – not a bad thing.

Every track on The Garden of Earthly Delights has parts, spaces and sections, and each is different slightly in timing and the way the sounds interweave together and work. However, it is full almost to the point of being unfathomable – and perhaps, just perhaps maybe less from John Zorn’s Simulacrum would have been more in places. John Medeski keyboard is technically brilliant but its constant presence is also almost annoying at times, reminding the listener of an organ or fairground ride, yet it suits a lot of the tracks too.

The Garden of Earthly Delights is like nothing I have heard before, and yet at the same time in an ironic way, there is a familiarity to much of the music – something from the past, something rocky, ’70s, bluesy, heavy metal and a jazz swing in there at times. Nothing new, nothing particularly spectacular, yet all good and all driven, manic and seething in its vociferous pursuit of something. Quite what, it can’t decide. But somehow, surely, John Zorn’s Simulacrum is getting there – just not yet.

Sammy Stein

Sammy Stein

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Sammy Stein
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