In 2015, prolific composer John Zorn debuted Simulacrum, a trio featuring organist John Medeski, guitarist Matt Hollenberg, and drummer Kenny Grohowski. He did not play with the group, but he wrote all the music and conducted them in the studio. During that first year of activity, they recorded three studio albums; I interviewed the members (but not Zorn) at the time, learning about the genesis of the project and its methodology. I drew a connection between their work and the seven albums made by a previous Zorn-assembled ensemble, Moonchild, which featured vocalist Mike Patton, bassist Trevor Dunn, and drummer Joey Baron, but brought in guests including Medeski and guitarist Marc Ribot during the course of its seven-album lifespan.
Simulacrum ultimately made eight studio albums between 2015 and 2021, plus a live album, and now seems to have wound down. But all three members are part of a new Zorn group, Chaos Magick, with the addition of Brian Marsella on electric piano.
The group’s self-titled debut was released in April of this year, a nine-track CD with track titles like “The Initiate,” “The Servitor,” “Crossing the Abyss” and “Imp of the Perverse.” According to the Tzadik website, “Chaos Magick is a contemporary magical practice based on the ideas of Austin Osman Spare…it embraces and has influenced the work of William Burroughs, Robert Anton Wilson, Aleister Crowley and many others.” Spare was a draughtsman and painter with a strong interest in occult belief systems including Theosophy and whatever Crowley’s mystical order, which he joined in 1907, believed. His black-and-white drawings were quite detailed and beautiful; he also wrote several books and published small journals which lasted only a few issues. Since Zorn has long been fascinated with occultism and mysticism of all sorts, it’s no surprise that he would be inspired by the work of Spare as he has been by Artaud, Bataille, Crowley, and numerous others. But it’s hard to draw a line (sorry) between the references he cites, or the titles he gives his tracks, and the actual music coming out of the speakers.
Chaos Magick‘s music, at its best, is spacy, improvisatory jazz-rock with lots of drift and interplay between Medeski and Marsella. It frequently eschews the hardcore/death metal energy that fueled both Moonchild and Simulacrum, and instead exists nearer to Miles Davis circa In a Silent Way, early Tony Williams Lifetime, Larry Young‘s spacier efforts (Of Love and Peace and Lawrence of Newark in particular), the jammier Doors material, and maybe the first Weather Report album. Minus the horns, of course. Zorn doesn’t play on this album; he’s just the writer and in-studio bandleader. Some pieces, like “Egregore” and “Crossing the Abyss” are full of the quick cuts and bursts of noise that are stereotypically Zorn, and Hollenberg delivers a pretty gnarly guitar solo on the former in between outbursts of tribal surf/swing drums, but quieter, more psychedelic tracks like “St. Augustine” and “Liber 15” feel closer to the heart of the project, while the aggro stuff seems obligatory, giving the people what they want.
The second Chaos Magick album, The Ninth Circle (subtitle: Orpheus in the Underworld), was released a few weeks ago. If there’s a “lead” instrumentalist here, it’s Marsella, who plays piano, Fender Rhodes, and Mellotron, while Medeski limits himself to organ. The tracks are simply titled “Canto” I through IX, and the whole thing is apparently a piece of program music intended to retell the story of Orpheus and Eurydice (his wife, whom he traveled to Hades to retrieve, only to lose again at the last moment). The individual pieces are generally similar in tone to those on the debut album, with maybe a little more of a classic rock feel at times. “Canto II” features some guitar-keyboard interplay that’s strongly reminiscent of Blue Öyster Cult, of all things. The splatter-collage sections are as always less interesting than the passages where the various players get to really dig into a groove and explore, though it must be said that Kenny Grohowski‘s drum solos have a pleasingly explosive fusion-meets-death metal quality, especially when they seem to arrive out of nowhere.
I’ve long believed that Zorn’s best music is made with consistent ensembles: Naked City, PainKiller, Masada (and Electric Masada), Moonchild, Simulacrum, Insurrection… he has a way of composing a thick book of compositions for a small set of musicians that establishes a consistent style and voice almost instantly, then changes it slowly and subtly over a series of albums. Moonchild in particular evolved from a post-hardcore/noise-rock trio to something close to prog rock. Chaos Magick is a direct outgrowth of the over-the-top jazz-rock of Simulacrum, and shows a great deal of potential. I look forward to the rest of the albums in this series, however many there may be.
Lovely take that makes me want to revisit all of those ensembles respective albums chronologically right away. It’s really amazing to follow the way the sound of each ensemble changed over time. And it’s as good a time as any to see whether my copy of Six Litanies for Heliogabalus still smells like roses, after all these years..