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Painkiller - Execution Ground [Karlrecords - 0000]

Painkiller (John Zorn, Bill Laswell and Mick Harris) is somewhat of a legendary outfit among John Zorn fans and those who enjoy extremely aggressive free jazz.  While I can't say I ever really feel like listening to it, I have respect for the ferocity of their initial 'jazzcore' EPs, "Guts of a Virgin" and "Buried Secrets".   Across the rest of their career, however, my opinion diverges from many, as I find Zorn's blatant, snarky aggression to be increasingly at odds with Laswell's relaxed new age and dub aesthetic.

Following the initial EPs, a number of live recordings were released, the first being "Rituals -Live in Japan", in 1993, and the 2nd being this double disk set, "Execution Ground" in 1994,( in the form of double CD set) a drastic departure from the brevity of their previous music, which contained firstly a live recording of several lengthy improvisations, and an 'ambient' remix of the album on the second disk. Here we have the a double vinyl reissue of the album on German  label Karlrecords


There is some enjoyable music here, moments when Painkiller starts to sound like a midtempo noise rock jam band, riffing in an easily followed 4/4 groove, but generally avoiding melody, focusing instead on ashy, blown out feedback tones and wailing distortion, for a blasted dystopian vibe.  Laswell's creative use of effects pedals diversifies the texture of the music.

The sounds of the members' previous projects begin to creep into Painkiller, to such a large extent that the identity of the band is changed beyond recognition, and far less distinct.  Laswell has relaxed back into his usual mode of repetitive midtempo dub improvisation, selecting a pocket of notes and grooving out, entranced, for 20 minutes on end.  Laswell's abstract and stripped down concept of dub includes little relation to reggae, and certainly requires some attention span to remain engaged with.

The most obviously ill-conceived moments occur when Laswell is occupied playing a filtered, dub bassline, rounded and liquefied, sub frequencies pleasantly massaging the ears, only for Zorn to repeatedly squeal his saxophone painfully and harshly as possible, as if he has no idea the rest of the band has stopped thrashing away.  Zorn uses a harmonizer, pitched to a dissonant, shrill interval which makes tonality impossible.  He squeaks and bubbles his way in rapid spiralling shapes across the halftime beat behind him.  He has more energy than the other two players combined.  During these times it is clear that the members of the band have very different goals.

As for Mick Harris, his drumming is passable rock drumming, but sticks out like a sore thumb among Laswell and Zorn, who are more polished players.  Zorn has the ability to create spontaneous melody and clean, breath supported tones, though he often eschews this in favor of altissimo blasting .  Laswell similarly has great technical skill, but you wouldn't always know it, as his playing has a subtlety and minimalism that reveals a number of ghost notes and clever accents within initially simple sounding pentatonic riffs.  Mick Harris' musical strength is far greater in the abstract electronic realm, if you ask me: I am a huge fan of the morbidly evocative and hallucinatory music of both Lull and Scorn.

The 'ambient' second disk contains howling wind and desolate reverberant vastness, which fans of Lustmord should appreciate.  Sections of disk 1 are apparent in wetter processed form.  Ultimately though, it's not even close to real 'ambient' music, as unprocessed sections of the full band jamming appear periodically.   The result of this is that it seems to meander, and is not distinct enough from the 1st disk.  Quite a few times, the rapid fading in and out begins to feel arbitrary.  Large amounts of Zorn's histrionics have been subdued or removed, however, which is a plus for me, and it's reasonably listenable overall.

This album was a nice attempt to broaden the horizons of Painkiller, but it isn't an album I can listen to repeatedly, particularly not disk 1.  Zorn's altissimo is more grating than any sound I've ever heard on a metal album, and it was far better contextualized in Naked City or Painkiller's first EPs.  The immersive, spacious world Laswell attempts to create is thoroughly disrupted by Zorn's influence.  I'm a fan of all three of these musicians, but not necessarily together.

Rating: 3 out of 5Rating: 3 out of 5Rating: 3 out of 5Rating: 3 out of 5Rating: 3 out of 5

Josh Landry
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