Zu – Carboniferous

What is it that defines music? Is it three minutes of processed 4/4 beats and verses that flow into simple 4-chord choruses, jam-packed with lyrics of just the right amount of ambiguity to garner mass appeal? Is it a cohesion of structured, melodic noise that invokes some sort of complex emotion from the listener? Is it any noise or series of noises that stimulates a cognitive response within the mind? Where in fact does the threshold separating music from noise lie? You could make the reasonable claim that “ambient” or “drone” groups, such as Wolf Eyes, Tribes of Neurot, and Sunn O)))  or “noise” groups, such as Hella, Lightning Bolt, and HEALTH, publish a brand of noise that is just beneath the accolade of “musical” merit. Even so, does that in any way invalidate their works with the condescending moniker of “sub-music?”

No, it doesn’t. Music, in all its intrepid variety, is nothing but glorious noise, meticulously assembled to invoke some sort of response from the listener. Should this intended response, however, be limited to the simple, insipid intent to please? Is music that dares to unsettle, frighten, or disturb just the work of twisted malcontents or is it likewise deserving of our attention? Music, like paint, prose, and photography, is an art. Baudelaire, Picasso, Dali, they all forged their own legacies out of their interpretations of the abstract, disturbing, or the just plain unsettling. So why is it that musicians have been prevented from doing the same?

This italian trio, calling themselves Zu, straddles the boundary between music and pure noise. Formed over a decade ago, the band has a relatively large discography (at least one record every year) and has performed a superhuman number of shows (reportedly at least a thousand). This indefatigable band crafts music that has been described as math rock, post-punk jazz, and even metal, sometimes even within the same song. Ranging from the dissonant math jazz on their debut Bromio to the droning electronics on Identification With the Enemy (courtesy of guest electronic artist Nobukazu Takemura) to the thrashy experimental Igneo, Zu are about as multifarious as any band with a sax, bass, and drums could be.

Released in early 2009 under Ipecac Records, Carboniferous, perhaps their most cohesive record to date, showcases some of the most comprehensive work the band has ever released. Call it loud, call it angry, call it repulsive if you will; perhaps it’s all of these things. Yet beyond the thick distortion, raucous drumming, and saxophone that squeals like a dying antelope lies a plethora of abstract beauty. At times daunting and others thoroughly frightening, this enthralling record will keep you enveloped within its dark grasp.

The invigorating opener “Ostia” feels like a brush with death, with chasing drum beats and ear-piercing sax squeals in between mathy breakdowns. It serves as an initiation of sorts, demonstrating the album’s abrasive sound without entirely abandoning familiarity. “Beata Viscera” pounds with a similar sense of urgency, this one being much more percussion-based and featuring textured electronics that add an air of mystique in between the pummeling marches.

A number of sludge-influenced songs supplement the faster tracks. King Buzzo of Melvins, another Ipecac band, lends his chops on the sludgy “Chthonian,” a slow march that dips between silent passages and powerful distorted riffs. About a third of the way into the song, it speeds up to a dizzying run, a peculiarly amelodic passage that seemingly tugs into nowhere, a riff that, rather than falling flat, simply disappears into an abyss. An ambient bridge adds to the mystique before the song pulls into a cacophonous “chorus” and discordant shredding courtesy of Mr. Osborne.

If not already apparent, “Carbon” spells out the band’s penchant for mathy beats; the time signature on this song expands by one beat per measure over the course of six beats before starting over. Nearly every track on the record also demonstrates this trait, most notably “Mimosa Hostilis” and “Erineys” to name a few.

Mike Patton (Faith No More, Mr. Bungle, Fantômas), the owner of Ipecac Records and a well-known contributor on experimental records, having worked with John Zorn, the Dillinger Escape Plan, and Melt-Banana, lends his unique vocal talents on “Soulympics,” the only track on the record with singing. This odd dance of muted bass and syncopation pitches just about everything Patton has to offer, including growling whispers, full-blown shouting, and his trademark demonic freak-outs. The track is an odd contrast to the rest of the record, with identifiable verses and stricter adherence to meter. However, the human touch on the record does not break the momentum; rather, it merely adds another dimension to it, one that in this case sounds like it is meant to illustrate purgatorial torments of the soul.

The quick crescendos and harrowing beats on “Obsidian” make for a fitting close to the record; the dramatic tone of the song, complete with a black metal breakdown, help close the lid, as it were, on a thoroughly frightening record. However, the record does not end here. “Orc,” the final track, proves the apex of the album’s ability to invoke fear. Deceptively following the resolution on “Obsidian,” “Orc” casts the listener into a black morass. This track has no melody, just atmosphere by the spoonful. Eerie electronics blanket the track, completed by field recordings of birds, dogs, and dripping water. Patton lends his vocals again, playing the “Orc,” a deep vocal presence that churns and crescendos before finally fading away back into the abyss.

Many will undoubtedly claim that music that dares to terrify is pointless, that music should exist only to comfort flagging souls. To preemptively counter this assertion, I fervently insist that music is an art, that it is a form of expression and should exist independent of the demands of the common folk. Why should the artist be obligated to be sensitive to the souls of the average man at the expense of his own?  To accommodate for the vast majority is to render music uniform, to dilute the nuances that separate one artist from another. That being said, Carboniferous is definitely not for the majority.

However, it epitomizes the vast potential of music as an expressive and creative art. This record is the audible equivalent to the darkest works of Picasso or Dali; while firmly seated in reality, it pushes boundaries, contorts matter, and inverts natural law until what you have left is familiar, yet unreal, a fettering purgatory of nightmarish abstractions. And yet you’ll never want to leave.

Score: A

by Mason “Sucker for the Sax” McGough

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