Music Reviews
The Way of the Animal Powers (Reissue)

Zu The Way of the Animal Powers (Reissue)

(Public Guilt) Rating - 8/10

Jazz, for a while now, has been an informant genre.

As the ever-present noise collective has grown over the years, performers like John Zorn taking somewhat of an unofficial role as an underground noise pioneer, jazz has been a paramount resource for inspiration, its improv-insanity versatile enough to mold into whatever strange or terrifying vision seems fit.  Acts peer-worthy to the oddity that is Roman experimentalists, Zu, for instance, revolve around a vision of avant-jazz that’s almost harder to swallow than anything Coltrane, Ayler, or even Cecil Taylor, whipped up forty or fifty years ago.  The music structures continue to crumble, the aggression builds and the amplifiers push out louder and louder sounds.  Make no mistake:  technology is in a constant search for new ways to make you lose your hearing, and a band like Zu will generate mental fatigue while the volume’s up.

If there’s an imaginary line that separates The Boredoms and Melt Banana from Naked City and Fantômas, Zu is probably around its epicenter, a mostly instrumental combination of arrhythmic percussive patterns, swampy low end and an unconventional gift for minimalist cacophony.  With saxophone, bass and drums at the core, The Way of the Animal Powers, which was originally released in 2005 by the now-defunct Xeng label, submits nine different ways to make you uncomfortable.  That’s not to say that the album is blatantly offensive, but as cellist Fred Lonberg-Holm generates nausea-inducing tone over Zu’s pattered rhythm, and as an air of doom fills every chugging bass riff, The Way of the Animal Powers could be seen as 25 minutes of impending dread.  The dry narration delivered with hints of disgust from a psychologist describing a patient in Anatomy of a Lost Battle more or less communicates what we’re dealing with:

“Discordant notes, are just hubbub, a cacophony.  He creates a disturbance because he’s basically… disturbed.”

I can’t tell if this is a self-referential jab thrown in there or not, but it’s an interesting piece of the script relative to the music on the album.

Tom Araya Is Our Elvis melts from friction; the initial clean swirls of bass grit explode as breaks of dissonant sax exhalation cause rifts heavy enough to make Tom proud.  Following is the aforementioned Anatomy of a Lost Battle, whose mostly accessible make-up allows for ease of decipherability from the psychologist as he over abundantly describes the patient, diagnosis being “basically this is a worthless wreck.” 

Lonberg-Holm’s cello slithers for Shape Shifting, a sonic squeegee over drummer, Jacopo Battaglia.  The Aftermath, a track solely comprised of Lonberg-Holm and sax player, Luca T. Mai, simply play against each other in long stretches of tone, like an interlude before Things Fall Apart, with a bullhorn of a bass line, has Battaglia rattling like pocket change.

For The Witch Herbalist Of The Remote Town, Mai exudes a snake-charmer quality through this sax like an unpolished Pharoah Sanders.  The rhythms do become more of a stretch as Zu expands on makeshift snare beats and wild cello bowing.  Farewell to the Species is almost laughable in its erratic persistence and cartoon-ish honk, which diminishes into string play and improv percussion that suggests they weren’t sure how to end the track.

A Fortress Against Shadows is minimalist free-form jazz, separate elements seemingly uninterested in coexisting until Every Seagull Knows takes a disciplined approach with Zu’s penchant for drum rolls and bass chugs.  A distant voice sings a few lines before the album closes out with the solace of beach calm and the gentle applause of waves rolling to the shore.

It’s easy to challenge the relevance of an album this obscure, as if to say that the effort to bring such a small piece of music back into circulation seems like a waste of time.  It would be easy to agree but, as a jazz fan, there’s a lot of importance to an album like this.  Bands like Zu are your modern-day jazz stars, revitalizing and nurturing, albeit through chaos and sonic deconstruction, a genre that’s been mostly quiet for decades.  The mainstays are, unfortunately, dying off and their progeny aren’t making much noise despite political turbulence, economic turmoil, societal frustration… etc.  And though Zu's type of jazz is mostly degenerative noise, there’s an avant soul to this music that needs to be heard by those who will be appreciative.  Jazz isn’t dead yet, just more abrasive.