Crate-Digging: Naked City – Leng Tch'e

Ugh. Gross.

(Toys Factory [Japan], 1992)

This review is not for the squeamish. Oh sure, you’re totally down with the “experimental scene,” aren’t you? You attend basement noise shows in Ann Arbor? Spend time following Norwegian black metal bands on tour? Curate Glenn Branca tributes at your local VFW? You can stomach whatever I’ve got for you, absolutely. But here’s the thing – it’s not the music that’s the turn-off, but rather the concept.

Eh - so I didn't use the original EP artwork. Sue me. This is the front cover of Black Box, the double-album US release of Leng Tch'e and Torture Garden.

The icky, yucky, this-can’t-possibly-be-true concept. The Chinese practiced the titular form of execution, the last public event of which took place in Beijing around 1905. Leng Tch’e roughly translates to “hundred pieces,” informally known as “death by a thousand cuts,” a process during which the victim is slowly hacked to death, but not before given opium to prolong the proceedings. If I may take a step back and offer my two cents: that’s pretty fucked up. I know history is littered with insane acts of depravity, but this is taking the whole thing a bit far. It’s a torture porn fetishist’s dream – I’m surprised no film has been made to capitalize on the concept. (Not that I’m going to research that – no thanks. I was one of those kids in the 1980s who was scared of the horror film boxes at video stores.)

But this is John Zorn we’re talking about here, a bandleader who never shied his ensemble, in this case Naked City, away from the extreme. It arguably serves him well in almost every instance, and this is no different. In Leng Tch’e the composer/saxophonist finds inspiration in this horrific practice, one he discovered, according to the liner notes, as his research “into the relationship between violence and the sacred led Zorn to the writings of George Bataille,” Zorn channels the agony and ecstasy into this single-track, half-hour-long doom and sludge metal meditation.

Yeah, that description made me do a double take as well.

Gone is the frantic jazz–meets–hardcore–and–speed–metal for this release, although the Naked City lineup remains consistent: Zorn, Bill Frisell on guitar, Wayne Horvitz on keys, Fred Frith on bass, Joey Baron on drums, and the Boredoms’ Yamatsuka (here credited as “Yamantaka”) Eye on vocals. (Yes, Naked City is a freaking supergroup.) And despite, or perhaps because of, the shift in sound, the band is able to stretch out and display their aptitude for a genre that’s seemingly at odds with their comfort zone. But that’s the point – these guys are so good and Zorn is such a visionary that they could succeed no matter what style they tackle. (It’s no wonder that the equally visionary Mike Patton has so closely followed Zorn, working with him on several occasions and sharing many curatorial traits in experimental composition. I’ve got a great live recording of Naked City at the Holland Festival in 2003 with Patton replacing Eye on vocals. Sublime. And insane.)

More Leng Tch'e artwork, from Black Box.

Leng Tch’e (er … “Leng Tch’e” since it’s the song) begins slowly, wallowing in guitar feedback and intermittent drum fills, a queasy introduction mimicking the confusing, tingly, yet nightmarish semi-consciousness of the milky opiate as it diffuses in the bloodstream. This lasts for about 9 minutes, at which point the rhythm becomes more pronounced (although Baron’s fills to begin are tightly wound and exquisitely placed). Around 15 minutes in, almost the exact halfway point of the track, Eye arrives. It’s the single most jarring transition in the song, as for the remaining 15 minutes or so, he does his trademark (at least for Zorn’s projects) wail-thingee, at once guttural and shrieky. Sounding appropriately as if in constant pain, Eye perfectly captures the wild-eyed horror of what happens to the Leng Tch’e victim, but he keeps it up for such a long time that it becomes quite uncomfortable, beyond the simple metal threshold for such things. He’s joined around the 20-minute mark by Zorn and his sax, squealing in the highest registers as pain and pleasure increase to a breaking point … 10 minutes later. It’s an endurance test, sure, but one Zorn and metal fans in equal measure should attempt. (I’m an indie geek by nature, and I dig it – c’mon guys!)

So I repeat – while this review certainly has some gut-churning moments, the squeamish should stay far away from Leng Tch’e itself…. Or “Leng Tch’e,” or even, and most especially, simple ol’ Leng Tch’e the practice. (For the love of God, stay away from that.) But if you’re looking for a bit of sick fun, if you’re a jazz head peeking into the metalheads’ camp, or a metalhead secretly looking for some far-out jazz experimentalism, go here. Go everywhere in Zorn’s catalog, actually. It’s a thrilling, albeit terrifying, place to get lost.

RIYL: Melvins, Sunn 0))), Fantômas, Boredoms

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