Templars in Sacred Blood (Tzadik)
by Phil Freeman
This is the sixth album by saxophonist and composer John Zorn‘s Moonchild ensemble. The group began its life as a trio—vocalist Mike Patton, bassist Trevor Dunn, and drummer Joey Baron—on the 2006 albums Moonchild: Songs Without Words (released in April) and Astronome (released in October). The debut was a blast of 11 semi-improvised(-sounding) pieces, conducted by Zorn, featuring Patton’s bleating, gabbling vocals over ultra-distorted electric bass riffs from Dunn and pounding, jazz-unto-grindcore drumming from Baron. Some pieces were crawlingly slow, others hysterically fast; the overall effect was exhausting and exhilarating in equal measure. Astronome, by contrast, was a sprawling but deeply focused set of three extended tracks (the shortest just under 13 minutes, the longest just over 17) titled as though they were soundtracking a 19th Century play dealing with mysticism and the occult. Unlike the rock/metal blast of Songs Without Words, which could be enjoyed on a raw-energy level like punk rock or grindcore, Astronome demanded concentration from the listener.
Five months later, the third album came: Six Litanies for Heliogabalus, a dedication to a mythically decadent Roman emperor that found Zorn augmenting the core trio for the first time, but not the last by any means—Patton, Dunn and Baron were joined by Jamie Saft on organ, Ikue Mori on electronics, three female vocalists (Martha Cluver, Abby Fischer, Kirsten Sollek), and the boss himself on alto saxophone. The ensemble once again blended improvisation and powerful riffing, with “Litany III” and “Litany V” allowing everyone, particularly the rhythm section, to send things into the stratosphere, while also providing a solo spotlight for Patton on “Litany IV.” The fourth album, 2008′s The Crucible, again featured Zorn as an active participant but brought only one other guest into the mix: guitarist Marc Ribot, who deconstructed Led Zeppelin riffs on “9×9.”
The fifth Moonchild album, 2010′s Ipsissimus, was the group’s most eclectic and wide-ranging. Once again, Zorn and Ribot joined the core trio, but they never appeared on the same tracks—the album repeatedly subdivided the musicians into various duos, trios, and quartets, the most surprising of these being the Ribot-Dunn-Baron grouping heard on the three tracks dubbed “Apparitions” I, II and III. Whether it was an attempt to throw the group members (whose relationship to each other, after four previous albums together, could easily have become calcified and their interactions rote and dependent on easy choices) off balance, or just reveal greater potential to the listener through recontextualization—show ‘em you’ve still got a few tricks up your sleeve—the results were impressive and the album a success.
This latest Moonchild disc, Templars in Sacred Blood, came out last month. For the first time since Astronome, Zorn doesn’t play on it; the group consists of Patton, Dunn, Baron, and organist John Medeski. It’s probably the most conventionally “rock” of the whole series—specifically, it seems to draw influence from 1970s progressive rock. The bassline and subtle groove of the third track, “Evocation of Baphomet,” is strongly reminiscent of Jethro Tull‘s “Living in the Past,” while on other pieces, Mike Patton’s chanted vocals and the band’s almost funky surges come off like tributes to, or imitations of, the legendary French art-rock ensemble Magma, and “Libera Me” (not just the melody and rhythm, but the buzzing distortion on Dunn’s bass, seemingly intended to emulate Robert Fripp‘s guitar tone) recalls King Crimson albums like Starless and Bible Black or Larks’ Tongues in Aspic. The lyrics are collections of names and phrases related to mysticism, the occult, and of course the Templars, but the historical knowledge on display doesn’t seem to run much deeper than that offered by, say, an Iron Maiden song. Still, the music is as impressive as every other Moonchild disc, despite being more straightforward than some and less “punk” than many. It might actually make the best entry point of any of the six releases to date, though honestly, every Moonchild album is a must-hear.