Mongrel means one of mixed ancestry. Usually used in reference to canines, the word describes those whose parentage is unknown and who lack traits specific to one single breed. Instead, a melange of genetic influences create a creature who typically displays what is known as hybrid vigor, the opposite of the classic problem of pure-breed genetic defects, such as hip dysplasia. There is certainly the possibility that a hybrid will inherit mostly undesirable traits from its parents -- known as outbreeding depression -- but it is more likely that the mongrel will show traits consistent with outbreeding enhancement, taking desirable traits from the parents and producing a more robust and long-lasting creature.
Enter Zu, a Roman jazz trio who are poised to pickup steam as one of the most notable purveyors of mongrel jazz since Sun City Girls. The trio often combine lurching and debilitating sludge (bassist Massimo Pupillo), ecstatic squawking (alto/baritone saxophonist Luca T. Mai), and crazed drumming (Jacopo Battiglia) with ease and finesse, the output defying its antecedents. Indeed, even if we knew who Zu’s parents were (Last Exit? James Chance? Can? John Zorn?), it probably wouldn’t help us explain what we find on Carboniferous, the group's 14th album.
Zu have always employed improvisation as a means more than an end, but their collaborations have also become a signature aspect of their output, with each successive album more or less defined by a guest musician: Fred Lonberg-Holm (Chicago free jazz heavyweight on cello) created highly aggressive textures befitting of Zu’s penchant for dropping metal’s bombast into the crazed melee of improv jazz on The Way of the Animal Powers; saxophonist Mats Gustafsson helped create a visceral dual sax sound that bludgeoned listeners on How to Raise an Ox; and veritable Japanese artist Nobukazu Takemura added brooding electronic textures on Identification with the Enemy. The tension could be found in the wild outbursts of improv that would obliterate the structures, certainly a long way from their album of cover songs done alongside Eugene Chadbourne (an outing fit for fans of the truly bizarre).
This time around, they work so well with collaborators Mike Patton (Mr. Bungle, Fantomas) and King Buzzo (the Melvins) that you have to wonder if Zu really deserves to be called a trio, given that they are so often working (and working well) outside of a triangular space. Patton owns Ipecac (on which this album is released), toured with Zu pretty much all last year, and curated the 2008 ATP, where the band happened to perform. It seems to be a beneficial relationship, to say the least.
Despite the title referring to a period of glaciation (perhaps signifying slow-moving sounds and loose structure), Zu surprise their fans with an even more metal sound. A relentlessly heavy groove steers them along from strict free-jazz and avant-meandering into a world of reed-swamped, one-speed swamp buggy mud-bogging. That’s granny gear knee-deep in the sludge, and Zu is the monster truck of the jazz world. Rather than stringing together a litany of genres, this album takes big and little pieces of the heaviest shit out there and shoves it in a sack so tight that, when they pull it out, you’d think Mary Poppins was pulling these riffs out of her bottomless carpet bag.
"Orc," the album's closing track, is on the rhythm-less side of the scale, devoid of groove, but it works as a deflation after the pulse-pounding headache delivery that precedes it. There is no room for uneasy wiggling during this record: either you full-on accept the throbbing or you simply turn it off. There are only a few moments of noodling or contemplation to breakup what is otherwise good old-fashioned rocking-the-fuck-out, the kind of intensity that will simply be too much for weak listeners. The true insight here is that Zu’s prowess is growing and can't go unnoticed for much longer, especially with this caliber of material and their continual desire to try new things.
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