A Token of My Extreme: Naked City- Torture Garden (1990)
Shimmy Disc (1990) and Tzadik Records (1996)
[Note: This review is for Torture Garden only. I only used the Black Box cover art because the original art is definitely NSFW. I've never heard the Black Box companion piece "Leng Tch'e," which is apparently a long-form sludge metal composition very different from Torture Garden, but has the same lineup.]
John Zorn is practically the closest thing the avant-garde scene has to a superstar. A saxophonist, composer, and producer from Brooklyn, NY and college dropout who founded his own performance art project Theatre of Musical Optics in 1975, he's been hard at work mentally scarring listeners ever since. He's composed music for films, documentaries, cartoons, chamber musicians, full orchestras, jazz bands, and avant-garde ensembles both large and small. If a genre exists, he's probably played it straight, dissected it, deconstructed it, and blasted it back at us in skewered form a few times over. His body of work is fucking massive--I guarantee that this is not the last time you will see Zorn in this column.
Born in 1988 and lasting in its original form until 1993, Naked City is quite possibly his most famous project and maybe even his most definitive. Featuring the hugely talented core personnel of guitarist Bill Frisell, keyboardist Wayne Horvitz, bassist Fred Frith, drummer Joey Baron and the mighty Zorn himself on alto sax, on Torture Garden Naked City play what can be basically described as the sound of a radio with a broken tuner--in a mental asylum. It's a huge noisy postmodern splatter of every genre under the sun, molded into mostly sub-minute "grindcore miniatures" executed with astonishing precision that sound almost totally improvised, but are actually sheet music. The 52-second "Speedfreaks" exemplifies Naked City's genre-bending mission, switching from style to style in bursts often lasting no more than 4 or 5 seconds, and the other 41 (!) songs on here are similarly manic and marked by Zorn's trademark sax screams, which sounds like Anthony Braxton or late-period Coltrane being raped by a bull.
If this isn't crazy enough, enter Yamatsuka Eye. Frontman of equally demented Japanese avant-garde collective Boredoms, Eye's vocals are anything but singing in the conventional sense. He howls, he gibbers, he yells, he shrieks, he roars, he laughs maniacally, he pretty much straight flips the fuck out over all 25 minutes of the record. Most of the time he just pushes the band over the top with a random interjection of vocal anarchy, but sometimes he duets with Zorn's atom-smashing blowing and the result is like having a cordless drill shoved into your face.
Despite the utter intensity of the material and the appropriately graphic, S&M-inspired song titles (which are sometimes strangely onomatopoetic), there is an irrepressible sense of fun and humor to Torture Garden not found in the vast majority of avant-garde recordings. Oftimes Zorn will spend a few additional seconds with a genre or play with a melody a bit, and the result is hilarious and entertaining--consider the honky-tonk break of "NY Flat Top Box," the quixotic and goofy charm of "The Prestidigitator," or the moody jazz opening of "Speedball." Even if this music is defiantly obnoxious to the outside observer, they can't deny that the sheer cartoony mania of it is good for a laugh or two. And open-minded jazz aficionados will appreciate the mind-blowing chops and interplay on display.
All told, not too shabby for a guy that looks like this eh?
For listeners into metal or punk (or Mr. Bungle fans for that matter), Torture Garden along with Naked City's considerably more sedate self-titled debut (which shares a few tracks from this album) are actually a pretty good point of entry into Zorn's work. Otherwise, newcomers might want to try out a few other recordings--The Big Gundown and Spillane, tributes to classic Western composer Ennio Morricone and French New Wave auteur Jean-Luc Godard respectively, are both excellent and with much less ADHD. Either way, once you become a Zorn fan you will eventually end up here. It's just too good to pass over.