While this semi-fluid aggregation wasn’t leader John Zorn’s first attempt at a fusion (so to speak) of improv-jazz and free-rock elements, it has without a doubt been the hornman’s most extreme. Drawing equally from the random viscera spew of hardcore punk (highlighted by the presence of Boredoms singer Eye Yamatsuka) and the intellectually challenging tonal experiments of modern classical composers like Charles Ives, Naked City creates a constantly shifting sonic environment that’s tricky to navigate no matter what survival tools the listener brings along.
On Naked City (which is actually credited to Zorn as a solo artist), the band sets the tone for things to come by jimmying no less than 25 brief bursts of deceptively well-ordered noise onto a disc adorned with a gruesome post-execution photograph. Egged on by Zorn’s saxophone, guitarist Fred Frith and precise drummer Joey Baron let their usual tight reins out to wax playful on pieces like “N.Y. Flat Top Box” and “Speedball.” What’s most striking, however, is the cinematic quality of such noir soundbites as “The Sicilian Clan” and “Latin Quarter,” both of which illustrate their title subjects magnificently — albeit in an entirely unconventional manner.
Torture Garden is a bit less exhilarating, in part because the group swings its pendulum too far into rock territory, and in part because Zorn doesn’t control the arrangements with the same exactitude as on the debut. As such, it could pass for any number of post-Minutemen art-punk combos having a go at jazzbo miscegenation — with a facelessness that’s unforgivable, given the unique styles of the participants. Yamatsuka asserts himself more strongly on Heretic, a movie score dedicated to (and clearly influenced by) filmmaker and folk music collector Harry Smith. Over the course of two dozen rough-edged pieces — most of which sound hewn from longer improvs — the group seldom downshifts from warp speed (or warped objective) long enough to allow breathing room for artists or audience.
Grand Guignol is a 41-“song,” 60-minute dissertation on deconstructionist theory that mixes Monk, Mesaien and Madball with an alternately compelling and disconcerting lack of cultural ranking. Since it was recorded at a handful of sessions (from 1989 through ’91) with minor shifts in lineup (most including Zorn and guitarist Bill Frisell), Grand Guignol doesn’t cohere particularly well — but if you like your musique concrète smashed into window-aimed bricks, it might be your cuppa meat.
On Radio, Naked City revisits the darkened movie theaters that provided spiritual succor for the band’s initial recordings, with a particular spotlight on keyboardist Wayne Horvitz, whose elusive, chattering runs often got short shrift on earlier Naked City releases. Horvitz is pushed even further to the fore on the strictly instrumental Absinthe, which suffers greatly from the absence of Yamatsuka. Zorn disbanded Naked City in 1993, choosing to concentrate his energies on Masada, the linchpin project of his Radical Jewish Culture collective.