John Zorn: In Search of the Miraculous

[25 April 2010]

By Benjamin Aspray

Does John Zorn ever get bored of never being boring? For 30 years now, the hyper-prolific composer has made a career out of restlessly splicing styles with post-modern zeal. The most influential of his work even sounds impatient: his tendency to interrupt tuneful genre pastiche with blasts of noise and atonality has had an indelible effect on extreme music (how else to account for modern grindcore’s affinity for goofball avant-gardism when the rest of metal still looks like a Frank Frazetta drawing?). He is often ingenious and sometimes unlistenable, but never dull. Maybe it was only a matter of time, then, that this kind of predictable unpredictability would become a routine and breaking free meant conquering the final, untouched frontier: being boring. On In Search of the Miraculous, John Zorn does exactly that.

These are, admittedly, fighting words. Released on Zorn’s New York-based Tzadik label, his new record features many of the virtues that set even his lesser works above the vast majority of experimental music. The compositions are balanced just right between being intricate and hanging loose, and the piano-led ensemble assembled here plays through them with precision and restraint. The production is crisp and clear; the vibes shimmer on top of sinewy basslines, and no one overtakes anyone else. In other words, the whole thing is very, very professional.

And that’s, unfortunately, all it really is. Miraculous is basically a prog-rock song cycle played as dinner music, resulting in ten sonically homogenous pieces that could easily work as incidental music for The Sims. The fact that they bear a D&D Adventure Kit’s worth of epic titles like “Prelude: From a Great Temple”, “The Magus”, and “Journey of the Magicians” comes across as a nudge in the ribs, reminding us how dramatic this Lite FM-ready stuff isn’t.

That’s not to say that it isn’t pretty. Zorn’s knack for a melody is in full force here, and repeated listens make that even clearer. “The Book of Shadows”, in this regard, is the disc’s one standout track, as unassuming as it is hummable, as obvious a choice for scoring a rainy soap opera as it is an actual song. Yet, even calling is a standout is a bit of a stretch, since it simply does best what every other midtempo, major key, snare-brushing, vibe-ringing, standup-bass-walking track already does. Apologists might claim the giddy gawdiness of Zorn’s more colorful, spasmodic recordings, especially with Naked City and Painkiller, make his genre purism look bland simply by contrast, but they would be wrong. After all, take his brilliant 1998 double-LP The Circle Maker, which is performed entirely on strings (a chamber trio on the first disc, a jazz sextet on the second). Like Miraculous, it is stately, unadorned, and supposedly steeped in mysticism. It is also, however, dynamic, expressive, and utterly intoxicating, developing distinctly Sephardic moods and drama with a limited sonic palette.

With In Search of the Miraculous, that limitedness is all there really is. According to the Tzadik website, this is one of twelve planned releases this year, and knowing John Zorn, he wanted the opportunity to force himself into even less expected musical territory. He’s succeeded, and shown the world that he can make faceless, functional music with the best of the world’s shopping network jingle-writers. Now, hopefully, he realizes that being boring is, well, boring, and goes back to what he does best: being awesome.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/123920-john-zorn-in-search-of-the-miraculous/