There is nothing like a new John Zorn album to smash your new found Sunday balance and peace into, well, pieces. Prolific composer, wild child, jazz man extraordinaire Zorn throws you with The True Discoveries of Witches and Demons back into prog rock virtuoso territory, but don’t be fooled, you won’t get off that easy. He may scare you by steering dangerously towards nostalgia filled King Crimson lookalike land, but like I said, be weary of red herrings.
Imagine you want to write an album inspired by mysticism, wizardry and the generally occult. You would use some odd, slow melodies, some cinematic, more ambiance oriented sounds, maybe some dissonance, all directed towards a general aura of mystery, and that is precisely what Zorn does in the last two tracks, Phantasms and Mirrors of Being. The guitars wail and chirp somewhere above, bass growls steadily and ominously while the organ and drums emphasize certain moments with short bursts. Mirrors of Being is the most structured of all 10 tracks, with the most coherent development, but also with the most easily forgettable sound. Phantasms also stays close to the more cinematic approach, but is a bit more challenging. Each instrument seems to choose a course of action and stay with it more or less ignoring the others in a picture close to the cliche insane asylum scene where each patient does his own thing in parallel to whatever the others are doing. There is a certain lack of focus at the heart of the album which can be very hard to accept if you expect a clear, descriptive narrative.
And then there is the bulk of the songs which which try very hard to evade any regular form or common development. The opener Strategies shows you right from the start what you are in for. Syncopated licks, irregular meters, blaring organs and virtuoso guitar playing are at the wicked heart of this album, but somewhere between the written scores and the improvisational side, the music very abruptly slips into chugging thrash, dissonant jazz sections, where one guitar stabs you and the other ties weird knots around you along with the organ (see Psychosoma). You can also find the unpredictable quick changes like between radio stations (including static mimicked by the band) Zorn so wonderfully employed on Spillane and, as almost always with Zorn, the songs end in an unpredictable flurry of notes which seem to lead nowhere but is actually meant to confuse you so you won’t notice the song is over. Sorcerer and The Gordian Knot have some regularity in their main sections, but still manage to be the most destructive songs of the whole album.
The True Discoveries of Witches and Demons is not an album to be taken lightly because of its sheer force and brutality, but it doesn’t repulse as Naked City did. The main accent here is not on violence, but rather on a weird sense of magic more closely related to ritualistic dances than Harry Potter and always relying on a prog rock scheme to gather all the errant musicians back into some sort of a groove. Try not to be frightened and not to break anything.