John Zorn’s Abraxas Plunges into the Killer Surf
John Zorn may have made a name for himself in the avant garde, but people forget what a hell of a rock tunesmith he is. Abraxas – guitarists Aram Bajakian and Eyal Maoz, bassist Shanir Ezra Blumenkranz and drummer Kenny Grohowski – have a new album, Psychomagia, out on Tzadik, which finds Zorn going off into noiserock and horror surf with the same kind of out-of-the-box tunefulness and assaultiveness as Beninghove’s Hangmen, or Big Lazy – or Morricone in his most acided-out back in the 60s, all filtered through the noisy prism of downtown NYC jazz. This being Zorn, some of his songs here are very through-composed, in other words, verses and choruses repeat less than you would expect from most surf bands. The result is both more elegant and more feral in places than even the mighty Dick Dale.
The opening track, Metapsychomagia, juxtaposes puckish wit with flickering menace, building from an uneasy bolero groove to a staggered Middle Eastern monster surf stomp, both guitarists ranging from lingering and twangy to frenetic and crazed, epic art-rock infused with swirling noise. Sacred Emblems is a Tex-Mex nocturne as Pink Floyd might have done it on Meddle, growing from a bittersweet Lee Hazelwood-flavored sway to southwestern gothic majesty. The band works a similar dynamic a little later on the considerably darker Squaring the Circle, a sort of Andalucian bolero surf number with a bracing Middle Eastern edge and unexpected dreampop echoes.
Circe is portrayed via a buzzing, squalling Raybeats-style stomp, the bass holding the center with burning low-register chords while the two guitars ride savage waves out into the maelstrom. Celestial Mechanism is closer to modern-day Balkan jazz than surf music, a shrieking, squalling two-chord vamp with the bass again holding the fort as the drums careen back and forth. Likewise, Four Rivers blends electric Balkan fusion with Israeli stoner metal over tumbling drums – it’s the noisiest thing on the album.
The Nameless God manages to be both the most opaquely indie-flavored and trad surf tune here, following a Ventures-in-space tangent over nebulously resonant, reverb-drenched guitars. The other two tracks here are the artsiest and arguably most interesting. Evocation of the Triumphant Beast is a genuinely evil creature, building from a macabre bolero over a stygian backdrop to searing, noisy postrock and then back with increasingly menacing flickers from the guitars. And Anima Mundi goes in the opposite direction, from an insistent danse macabre to a twinkly, clanging, serpentine guitar interlude that reminds of 70s psychedelic/art-rock legends Nektar. Throughout the album, the twin guitars sometimes wrestle, sometimes trade off gracefully, sometimes echo each other with a close yet dangerous chemistry that threatens to explode any second. On one hand, this album is so tuneful that fans of traditional surf music are going to love it; at the same time, it’s so deliciously evil in places that the most cynical Yo La Tengo diehards might be caught drooling.
So where can you hear this masterpiece? Start here at Youtube.