And so my reviews of Zorn continue. This time, I am visiting his 2002 release, I.A.O., an album that, like every other in his discography, is distinctly Zorn, yet also different from most of his other work. Indeed, I am constantly amazed at the consistency with which Zorn can find something new and interesting to do, even though he has over 100 CDs to his name (and more if you include other bands that he's been involved with). Nevertheless, he does it with striking consistency, and it seems that no matter what he does, he does it phenomenally, and I.A.O. is no exception.
This time, Zorn forgoes expanding the list of pioneering ways he has blended improvisation and composition (game pieces such as Cobra, file card pieces such as Spillane, etc). Instead, he focuses on the meditative quality of music, producing three wonderfully repetitive and trance-inducing pieces of music. Each has a different instrumentation and thus a different atmosphere, and apparently it's all tied together by some strange philosophy of Zorn, but what really matters is that it shows another side of Zorn the composer/critical thinker. And, as that is what makes Zorn my favorite modern composer in the first place, this album should be a fine addition to any Zorn catalogue.
And indeed it is. Every piece on here is wonderful, a well-crafted slice of musical hypnotism. Don't think that this album is going to be boring because of its tremendous repetition, however, as I.A.O. is an engaging listen from start to finish. The opening "Invocation" is a piece built around organ drones, creating a haunting, eerie sound that bounces in between comfort and discomfort, all while sounding amazing. On the other hand, "Lucifer Rising" is a stunningly beautiful piece composed of looping female voices. If you know his album Mysterium (another gem), this piece is similar to "Frammenti Del Sappho," except without the often disturbing high notes of the latter piece. Instead of mixing beauty with the ugliness (the good kind) to keep you on your toes, "Lucifer Rising" maximizes the beautiful aspect of the female voice, allowing it to lull you into a dream.
That's certainly not all there is to see on this album, however. The highlight (if not "Lucifer Rising") is probably the thirteen minute "Sex Magick," which sees Zorn exercising a love of tribal rhythms. This piece is purely drums and percussion, and it (at times) makes me wonder why any other instruments are needed in the world of music. While John Zorn has done a better drum-only piece, From Silence to Sorcery's "Gris-Gris," this is still a wonderful example of how drums can create lush and layered music without sounding showoff-y in the least. And, for the sake of clarity, please note that this piece (and "Lucifer Rising") came before "Gris-Gris" and "Frammenti Del Sappho."
Don't think this CD is all grooves and beauty, however. Zorn's music has always shown a love for the extreme, and that manifests itself here in the second to last track, "Leviathan." Here, Zorn uses his tremendous skill to fit death metal - of all things - into the pattern of the songs on the CD. While he does not succeed completely - "Leviathan" does feel somewhat out of place - it is such a wonderful song that I cannot really fault him for including it. In fact, all I can fault him for (on this album, at least) is the slightest of dead spots that's present in the middle of "The Clavicle of Solomon." Other than that (short) section, this album is a clear masterpiece, one of Zorn's finest efforts. Some of his later work may be slightly better (I'm thinking of Magick and Mysterium in particular), and his career highlight is clearly Naked Ciy, but I.A.O. might just be the best introduction to the world of Zorn. It's fairly accessible yet wonderful at the same time, and it's hard to ask for much better of an introduction, considering that we're dealing with the king of extreme avant-garde.
Need I say it? I guess I must. Highly recommended to all.