Insurrection (get it from Amazon) is the debut album by a band of the same name, assembled by John Zorn, who composed all the music but does not play on the record. The group features three of his current favorite musicians—guitarist Matt Hollenberg of Cleric and Simulacrum, bassist Trevor Dunn, and drummer Kenny Grohowski, of Simulacrum and avant-garde black metal outfit Imperial Triumphant—plus one new face/wild card, guitarist Julian Lage. Lage, known for an extremely clean tone on a modified Telecaster and a general delicacy of approach, is not someone you might expect to be invited to a Zorn party, but he makes himself right at home.
All ten compositions on Insurrection take their names from famous novels, including “Cat’s Cradle” (Kurt Vonnegut), “The Unnameable” (Samuel Beckett), “Nostromo” (Joseph Conrad), “The Atrocity Exhibition” (J.G. Ballard), “A Void” (Georges Perec), “Mason and Dixon” (Thomas Pynchon), “The Journal of Albion Moonlight” (Kenneth Patchen), and “The Recognitions” (William Gaddis). If there are connections between the titles and the music, they’re not immediately apparent. It’s possible that “A Void” forces the musicians to eschew any notes or chords in the key of E—the book being famously written in French, and then translated into English, without using that letter anywhere in the text—but I wouldn’t know. What I hear is a stuttering, bluesy funk-rock workout featuring plenty of complex rhythm section interaction as Lage and Hollenberg tear shit up simultaneously, rarely joining forces but never seeming like they’re trying to shout each other down, either.
“The Recognitions,” which opens the disc, sounds like a reworking of a tune from Moonchild (a previous Zorn-assembled ensemble with Dunn, drummer Joey Baron, and vocalist Mike Patton, plus various guests from album to album); a barbed guitar riff is laid over a bass line that switches back and forth between post-hardcore throb—think the Jesus Lizard at double time—and a weird kind of swing, as Grohowski rockets all around the kit like Billy Cobham playing for Necrophagist. The very next track, though, downshifts into a pastoral jazz fusion zone. “Pulsations” is a shimmering, almost ambient eight-minute journey into a zone somewhere between Miles Davis‘s In a Silent Way and the John McLaughlin/Carlos Santana album Love Devotion Surrender, with both guitars treated with reverb until they sound like electric pianos at times. “Mason and Dixon” has a Bill Frisell-ish feel, with a softly picked repetitive melody laid over gentle chords and brushed drums; “The Journal of Albion Moonlight,” meanwhile, takes that same woodsy feel and adds a Neil Young-ish ominousness to it, distorted guitar notes ringing out through the trees.
Almost every piece on Insurrection takes a fairly basic form: the rhythm section sets up a rhythm, and Hollenberg and Lage trade solos. (The big exception is “The Unnamable,” which is a dark, three-minute interlude that feels like being buried alive, very much in the spirit of its namesake novel.) But they’re different enough from each other that the album has both variety and flow, and both Dunn and Grohowski get plenty of time in the spotlight, too. This is a really excellent instrumental rock record that deserves an audience beyond the Zorn/Tzadik cult.