Bassist/producer Bill Laswell and alto sax abuser John Zorn are bosses of the New York vanguard, with long careers built on adventurous collaborations and cultural adaptations. So maybe it shouldn’t have come as a surprise that when they finally got together, it was with Mick Harris, drum demon of Napalm Death, to conjure an excited new hybrid of jazz and grindcore. If such an auspicious commotion sounds too good to be true, it isn’t: Painkiller’s extremes combust in a creative boom larger than the sum of its parts.
The Guts of a Virgin is an abbreviated (24 minutes) exposition of versatile thrash jazz. Each instrument occupies its own sonic terrain, combining in a sprawl of unanticipated death metal. The shell-shocked preamble “Scud Attack” sets the tone for an uncalculated frenzy that frees Zorn from the academic distance of his usual work. Laswell rips into his bass like an adrenalized teenager, and Mick Harris pummels the drums mercilessly, holding back here and there to preserve atmosphere. The wailing “Damage to the Mask” foreshadows the melodic terror that became the band’s forte.
The ten tracks of Buried Secrets include incipient ambience sprouting amidst the breakneck rampage. After plenty of ferocious squeal and bombast, “Blackhole Dub” opens a passage to the urban space jazz that will probably be Painkiller’s gift to the future. Justin Broadrick and Benny Green of Godflesh sit in for two songs, tying the spaciness and the spazziness to monolithic pounding akin to early Swans. Killing off a few skeletons, the 22-second “The Ladder” and the 54-second “Skinned” pay blasting homage to the Boredoms. Painkiller seems to be developing into a more organic version of Zorn’s prolific and acclaimed Naked City.
Conjuring a freeform sprawl that transcends the group’s earlier efforts, Execution Ground is an experimental adventure mixed like dance music. The piercing sax is coated in reverb, while the bass and drums are equalized to their deepest frequencies. Harris disproves the jungle DJ precept that there are certain beats only a drum machine can handle. Laswell’s playing is at its funky best, while Zorn’s horn recalls the crying tones of Miles Davis on Bitches Brew. Two of the trancey thudding tracks on Disc One (“Pashupatinath” and “Parish of Tama”) are revisited in ambient form on Disc Two, allowing Zorn to show off his softer side and Harris to display some patchworks of computer samples.
Lest these serial collaborators seem too close-knit, the trio is joined by kinky avant-garde guitarist Keiji Haino for the Japanese live CD Rituals. The Japanese edition of Execution Ground adds an extra disc, a 1994 live set accompanied by versatile screamer Yamatsuka Eye of the Boredoms. The Tzadik reissue adds an album of ambient mixes, raising the set’s ante to a four-disc extravaganza no Painkiller-prone home should be without.
Somnific Flux is a spare ambient album by Laswell and Harris, part of a flurry of similar atmospheric releases on Laswell’s Subharmonic label. Both lengthy cuts, “Distal Sonority” and “Capacious,” are extended examples of pure presence, offering wavering electronic moods that differ from Harris’ solo Lull recordings in that original sound sources are unrecognizable. Somewhere between Harris’ home base in Birmingham, England, and Laswell’s homestead in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, the two summon the presence of a slick wet dungeon straight out of the Doom II video game.