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Painkiller 
Execution Ground  
(Subharmonic (1994)) 

review by William Burke
2003-08-20

Being a fan of Peter Brotzmann and other hard experimental jazz, I sought out Execution Ground with some anticipation. The idea of John Zorn doing a jazz-thrash hybrid band more than caught my attention. I was however somewhat skeptical and made it a point to get a hold of some Painkiller to see just what in the world was going on. I put in the CD, got a cup of coffee, and sat back with a sort of 'oh yea, show me' disposition. About half way through the first track I realized that I had spilled the coffee and hadn't even noticed. This was music that demanded to be listened to and after that initial playing it pushed several of my other CDs to the back of the shelf.

As I listened, I understood very quickly that this was a very focused effort. In many ways it was a logical step for Zorn between Naked City and Masada. Gone are the tricky jazz hooks that sometimes populated early Naked City albums, gone are the calculated chance of other projects, gone is the miscellaneous noise that sometimes seeps in. What is left is a pure blowing album with three highly skilled and focused players. Not only can they flat out play, but they also listen to one another in a way that is rarely accomplished in any kind of music. No filler, no empty calories, just pure clear focused sound.

Zorn, on sax and vocals, is joined by Bill Laswell on bass and former Napalm Death drummer Mick Harris. They began their collaboration in 1991 when Zorn was listening to metal/grindcore groups such as Napalm Death. He discovered an intensity and creativity in this music that rivaled the 1960's free jazz players. From this admiration grew Painkiller, which successfully merges grindcore intensity with hard jazz sensibilities. The music is at once challenging, listenable and fairly unique. The only band that comes near it may be Last Exit, however the Painkiller sound is thankfully more sparse and the playing has a more carefully constructed lens.

Execution Ground is arranged in a series of strategic attacks on two discs. On disc one Zorn is in full-out, back-to-the-wall, straight-on thrash. He dips in and out of the weave of sound created by Laswell and Harris with graceful precision. There are no false steps, no misplaced notes. The drummer, Mick Harris does not overplay, often a danger in experimental music, but keeps things moving with well placed breaks, rolls, and melodic tom tom work. The glue, however, is Laswell, who thunders along with great timing and atmosphere. He moves through a wide range from ferocious rock licks, interesting hard bop, and even a little dub thrown in for good measure.

Disc two, which is labeled "Ambient," has more atmospheric playing, with a dark feel not unlike moments in Naked City'sTorture Garden but with a more ambient space: it's background music for the early morning darkness. It has the same unique merging of grindcore and hard bop, but in a more spacious and drawn out setting. Zorn holds long notes, then zigs and zags eerily through a series of ghostly patterns skillfully drawn by Laswell and Harris. It still grabs you and thrashes around, but in a more restrained way than disc one.

The moods achieved and the range of influences on this album are staggering. Even though at times the music is aggressive, anxious and intense, Painkiller manages to merge seemingly divergent directions in the music into a completely satisfying and engaging experience. The music cascades effortlessly through a series of different dynamics but always with an energizing point of convergence. While Zorn and Laswell have individually played in many different styles over the years, Execution Ground may be their most focused and complete vision to date.





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