Combining death metal with a distinct jazz influence is often treated as a radical notion, but if the metal community is being perfectly honest with itself, these two genres have been dancing together for quite some time. One needs to look no further than Atheist, Death and Cynic to find musicians who must’ve surely pored over their fair share of Return to Forever and Mahavishnu Orchestra records, admiring both the adventurous sounds and the musical chops.
In more recent times, it seems that the transformation of metalheads into jazz nerds is becoming more complete. Musicians’ and listeners’ tastes are expanding into more experimental realms, and things are not only getting weirder, but more convincingly executed. Like their New York City brethren Pyrrhon, Philadelphia’s John Frum bring a deep knowledge and depth of experience to their debut, A Stirring in the Noos. (Get it from Amazon.)
John Frum is a supergroup of sorts, featuring Derek Rydquist of the Faceless and Matt Hollenberg of Cleric on guitars, Liam Wilson of the Dillinger Escape Plan on bass, and Eli Litwin of Knife the Glitter on drums. It’s likely Hollenberg’s résumé that will raise the most eyebrows. He has made several albums for John Zorn‘s Tzadik label in the last year or two as part of Simulacrum, alongside such luminaries as organist John Medeski and bassist Trevor Dunn. Perhaps this lends legitimacy to the sort of hybrid sound John Frum are shooting for, or at least gives him the experience to manifest his vision on the guitar more effectively.
Make no mistake, though, A Stirring in the Noos is first and foremost a death metal album. Opener “Presage of Emptiness” contains enough left turns, including its opening section, to keep a Simulacrum fan on their toes. But each exploratory moment is sandwiched between hammering blast beats and vicious mid-paced riffing. There are moments of Gorguts-style brilliance as well, as their shadow looms large over any group trying their hand at this type of material.
But while jazz’s defining characteristic is improvisation, it’s impossible to pinpoint which parts of this music are composed, and which parts arrived at in the moment. Perhaps the best clues arrive during Hollenberg’s solos. The best illustration may be on “Memory Palace,” but throughout the album, he sounds like the bastard child of Trey Azagthoth and Sonny Sharrock. He takes the extreme, twisted melodic tendencies of the former and combines them with the squall of the latter. These solos are no mere afterthoughts to the songs themselves, but vital components of them.
The band as a whole seem to operate with a comfortable looseness. This is not the perfect “killing machine” unison playing of a Unique Leader-style brutal death metal band. Rather, the recording seems to convey the band’s sound in a live setting. One can almost hear the studied telepathy of seasoned live musicians, the lack of post-production perfection to their cohesion.
The sixth track, “He Come,” emphasizes another aspect of John Frum’s sound. The instrumental seems to be more or less a drum showcase for Eli Litwin, whose work throughout the album is stunning. But this isn’t a Neil Peart-style workout. The drums seem to be playing their normal role at the beginning of the track, only to build in intensity as the music continues. By the end, the drumming is not only a pyrotechnic display of musical prowess, but sounds like the culmination of an ecstatic trance ritual.
Sometimes it’s fun to consider jazz’s prominence in metal as possibly being born out of a giant misunderstanding. The seminal Gorguts album Obscura was a landmark, responsible for nosediving the genre into very experimental zones. Trying to make sense of it, listeners quite often looked to jazz’s freer fringes to make sense of what they were hearing. But as subsequent interviews revealed, Luc Lemay typically points to meditation and modern classical music, of which he is a composer, as the impetus for that album’s transcendent songs.
Still, if this is what sent many a metal musician diving into other areas, then it is surely a happy accident indeed. As John Frum deftly illustrate, this is fertile territory. The sounds heard on A Stirring in the Noos are incredibly provocative, yet at the same time also satisfy the visceral thrills one seeks from death metal. This isn’t just an album that rewards repeated listens; it damn near requires such an approach. Hopefully, listeners can wrap their head around this monstrous music before John Frum conjures their next release into this world.