Considering just how brilliant the free jazz saxophone on King Crimson’s “20th Century Schizoid Man” and Nik Turner’s twisted solos with Hawkwind all sounded 35 or 40 years ago, it’s odd that not many bands since the mid-1970s have dared to incorporate the saxophone into heavy metal music as the genre has expanded. Of course, by the mid-‘80s, saxophone had become one of rock music’s most cloying accoutrements, no matter how hard Hanoi Rocks and the shirtless dude in The Lost Boys might have tried. After metal’s astonishing fragmentation in the 1990s, though, that sense of daring crept back into extreme music, to the point now where it’s become fairly commonplace these days. Ephel Duath, the Ocean, Norway’s Shining, Giant Squid, Sigh, the Red Chord, and Ihsahn have all brought in this seemingly “un-metal” instrument and utilized it to great effect, but no band has combined jazz saxophone and crushingly heavy arrangements as well or as consistently as the Chicago band Yakuza.
Led by vocalist/saxophonist Bruce Lamont, who at one point in his career collaborated with the talented jazz composer Ken Vandermark, Yakuza always finds a comfortable niche between the enormous riffs and tribal rhythms of Neurosis with the more contemplative side of jazz. 2006’s Samsara was especially revelatory, a challenging yet wholly accessible work that showed enormous potential. One year later, the ambitious Transmutations placed more focus on the darker side of the band’s sound to great effect, though the feeling remained that there was still a truly great album in this band yet. With a new label in the highly reputable Profound Lore and a much fresher approach, however, Yakuza’s fourth album comes closer to greatness than ever before.
Although Matt Bayles’s production of Samsara worked well, Lamont, guitarist Matt McClelland, bassist Ivan Cruz, and drummer James Staffel made the smart decision to work with local producer Sanford Parker on Transmutations, and his distinct touch lent that record a warmth and immensity that sounded exceptional. Recorded and mixed by Parker again, the appropriately titled Of Seismic Consequence, though, is an even more significant improvement. The guitars are more clearly defined, the slightly dense touch making just enough room for the saxophone without compromising the songs’ heaviness, but more than ever before, Lamont’s vocals are placed front and center, which we hear immediately on the thunderous “Thinning the Herd”. He still employs the harsh screams, but the emphasis this time around is on clean singing, and his trance-like delivery is perfectly suited for this band’s music, his prophecies of doom giving the music a shamanistic vibe.
Yakuza’s balance between saxophone and extreme metal has never been more seamless. The first three minutes of “Stones and Bones” is a wickedly catchy exercise in purely physical metal, from math-like cadences to moments of pure thrash, but it shifts beautifully into a downtempo coda that clears the way for a gorgeous solo by Lamont. The deep, moody baritone sax groans on “Testing the Water” evoke memories of the late, great Mark Sandman, and “Deluge” starts off sounding elegiac only to gracefully build to a gorgeous climax. That said, the album’s strongest moments are heard midway through in the form of a two-song, 19-minute centerpiece. At first “Be That as it May” bears a striking resemblance to the raga-like groove of Om, but the King Crimson influence soon takes over, from Cruz’s distinct bassline to Lamont’s towering sax melody. The eleven-minute “Farewell to the Flesh”, meanwhile, takes more of a doom metal-oriented approach, Lamont’s saxophone echoing McClelland’s tortured riff, acting more as a supporting instrument to the guitars.
Of course, we do get a couple of brief blasts of pure metal aggression in “Good Riddance (Knuckle Walkers)” and “The Great War”, but Yakuza is at its best when Lamont is in full jazz mode, and there’s no shortage of that on Of Seismic Consequence. Balancing two seemingly disparate musical is far from easy, but Yakuza continues to make it seem so, creating extreme music that is as forceful as it is expressive.