In all of avant-garde music, there is nobody quite like John Zorn. His immense discography covers everything from minimalist classical to downright noise, showing each composed with the utmost care and mastery. Never is that clearer than on Six Litanies for Heliogabalus, the third album in his Trevor Dunn/Mike Patton/Joey Baron collaboration. Six Litanies catches Zorn displaying his love for extreme metal, though it goes far beyond the confines of that genre. Because the core of the sound is created by drums and distorted bass (with Patton babbling over the top), it never quite sounds like metal, though it is clearly heavy and loud.
Like so much of his work, Six Litanies blends improvisation and composition in a unique manner. In this case, John Zorn composed some of the music and conveyed the rest of the performers orally, directing their improvisation. This is no different from Moonchild and Astronome (the other two of his works with Patton, Dunn, and Baron), however. So what is it that makes Six Litanies not just a great CD overall, but the best of the three? Well, whereas the other two consisted only of Baron’s drumming, Dunn’s distorted bass, and Patton’s manic vocals, this one sees Zorn expanding the sound, adding Ikue Mori on electronics, Jamie Saft on organ, and a female trio on vocals, in addition to playing the saxophone himself. Thus, whereas on Moonchild and Astronome the softer sections often seemed sparse and occasionally even a tad dead, here they come to life with atmospheric vocals and organ, creating textures that make sure it never gets boring. Also, because this is the third CD in the series, the performers are better able to sustain the improvisations, and Zorn has worked out some of the (admittedly minor) compositional kinks that appeared on the first two in the series.
The end result is a fantastic CD. The heavy riffing sections combine Zorn’s stunning intelligence and critical thinking skills with the sheer bone-crushing power of metal, showcasing the greatest aspects of both. The softer sections, as I have noted, carry themselves perfectly, providing relief for the listener and advancing the “plot” of the music at the same time (a rare yet refreshing combination). The most interesting parts for me, however, are the improvisational sections where the performers really let loose. There’s nothing quite like hearing an organ pounding with the intensity of a guitar whose amp is on 11, drums played by a squid, bass that could replace the guitars in Meshuggah, and a saxophone that’s free-jazzing on acid all going at the same time, with, of course, Patton going apeshit over the top of it all. Of course, it’s not all like that: “Litany IV” is purely a vocal solo for Patton, who showcases his unique vocal stylings in full force, running through the gamut of all the many ways he can manipulate his voice (though forgoing some of the more disgusting ones that made for some awkward moments on Astronome). “Litany IV” is one of those things that so often gets described as “a good idea that just doesn’t sound good,” except that in this case it sounds fantastic. And the rest of the album is just as good, if not better.
There’s really not much more to be said about this release. It’s a masterpiece from start to finish and probably the greatest CD of 2007. In terms of a genre, the only way I can think to classify this is as extreme-free-cool-jazz-metal-with-Mike-Patton, but even that fails to indicate everything this album does so well. It’s probably not a great starting place into the world of John Zorn (I’d recommend IAO for that), but it ultimately stands up as one of his very best works. Only for the very open-minded or lovers of extreme avant-garde. If you are either of those, however, there can be no better CD for you.