John Zorn – Nosferatu

Truth be told, I haven’t always liked the work of John Zorn. Although I agree with the notion that his best work is indicative of genius, I often get the impression with his solo albums that- quite frankly- there’s not a great deal of intent behind them. Most of his musical ideas are engaging in the very least, but considering the man has put out several albums in this year alone, the hit-or-miss factor with his discography is no surprise. With that in mind, it is a joy and marvel to hear such a well-composed and executed album from him. John Zorn may be one of the most prolific composers out there, but as “Nosferatu” attests, this does not necessarily conflict with his quality. Minding the gap between dark ambient music and jazz, Zorn fashions an engaging and altogether believable horror film experience. However, amidst the subtle dissonance and spooky atmosphere, there are a handful of traditionally beautiful jazz tunes that distance it further from the concept gimmick it could have been made out to be. I wasn’t sure what to expect at first, but Mr. Zorn has created something excellent with “Nosferatu”.

“Nosferatu”, of course, was originally a silent film; a masterpiece of German expressionism that managed to instill a sense of dread and macabre without a single touch of sound. Once again, in 1979, director Werner Herzog reimagined the vampire story into his own version, which ended up a masterpiece in its own right. For Zorn’s purposes, I think the attention should be placed on the original. Although I’m not sure this album is timed meticulously enough to function as a proper soundtrack for the film, it’s easy to envision the dark soundscapes here scoring a panning shot of a dilapidated manor-castle or a dimly lit banquet hall. “Desolate Landscape” is very much a representation of the ambient style on the album. It largely negates melody or even rhythm, instead focusing on mixing sounds and embellishing certain textures. The result may be lost on some listeners looking for something less abstract, but the effect of the atmosphere comes on strong and fast. It’s oddly reminiscent of the same dark ambient stretches that the avant-garde black metal band Deathspell Omega have used in a couple of their albums.

Taking a look at the album titles, you can usually tell when it’s going to be a dark ambient track. There is not a wild diversity within these compositions, but each feels distinctive enough to tell apart from the rest. “Fatal Sunrise” and “Death Ship” are other tracks to look out for. Had “Nosferatu” consisted of nothing but these pieces, I would have been impressed by its keen play with textures, but admittedly bored. Luckily, these dark ambient pieces are kept interesting by the fact that they’re interspersed among a handful of more conventional jazz tracks. Fans of his work in Naked City may be expecting Zorn’s ‘jazz’ here to be a chaotic swirl, but barring “The Battle of Good and Evil” (which is just as freaky as you would expect!) things are kept soft and even rather beautiful. “Lucy” and “Jonathan Harker” are the two greatest things “Nosferatu” has to offer. Although Zorn occasionally lends his virtuosic alto sax playing, the star performer here is pianist Rob Burger, who makes these largely keyboard-driven tunes come to life. These pieces often come close to feeling cinematic in their own right, albeit in a much different form than the spooky ambient material. Although the more abstract material on “Nosferatu” is something I think will provoke a love-or-hate response in most people, the piano-based tunes should be memorably beautiful by just about everyone’s measure.

It’s a great album, and Zorn proves here that he can take a concept piece seriously, without it becoming too abstract to process enjoyably. It’s almost as if Zorn is Zappa’s evil half- brother.

Tracklist:

1. Desolate Landscape
2. Mina
3. The Battle of Good and Evil
4. Sinistera
5. Van Helsing
6. Fatal Sunrise
7. Hypnosis
8. Lucy
9. Nosferatu
10. The Stalking
11. The Undead
12. Death Ship
13. Jonathan Harker
14. Vampires at Large
15. Renfield
16. Stalker Dub

Line-up:

* Rob Burger – piano, organ
* Bill Laswell – bass
* Kevin Norton – vibraphone, drums, orchestral bells, Tibetan prayer bowls
* John Zorn – piano, alto sax, Fender Rhodes, electronics, breath

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