Zu Cortar Todo

[Ipecac; 2015]

Styles: math-skronk, sludge, punk-jazz, Armageddon
Others: Lightnight Bolt, Naked City, Flying Luttenbachers, Last Exit, Guapo, Shub-Niggurath

No music has power, really. You might think otherwise, but you’d be wrong. You’d be wrong because, for every song or symphony lauded as potent, there’s always a listener with vulnerabilities, susceptibilities, and weaknesses on the other end, a listener whose leanings selectively constrain the form a piece of music can take and whose own emotional potential is projected onto its notes. Put differently, it’s not enough for a composer to rely on her natural “genius” and expect her work to be inherently forceful. No, she has to sculpt her music in terms of what scares us, angers us, upsets us, excites us, and moves us. She presses the buttons that genes and fate have landed us with, but she does it under a veil of prestige and mastery, furtively conforming to our predispositions and pathologies while publicly enjoying a reputation for unbridled force, for being able to impose her emotions and sensibilities onto us without compromise.

Zu know something about this trick. For over 16 years, the Italian trio has exploited our fears of chaos and of losing control, constructing meticulously spastic albums like 2002’s mercurial Igneo and 2009’s (near-)seminal Carboniferous in such a way as to unlock our dread of anarchy and helplessness. Conversely, their tightly composed yet erratic blend of jazz, punk, and no-wave has played on our shared inclination to be thrilled by the simulation of lawlessness and danger, by the knowledge that, even with all the tumult and panic created by their math-skronk (or by a skydive, to take another example), everything is actually under someone’s control. And now, with the advent of their 15th album, Cortar Todo, they’ve begun catering for our apprehensive awe of the cosmic, the occult and the apocalyptic, or rather, of everything that hasn’t yet been drawn into the fold of our knowledge, understanding, and domination.

Correspondingly, the album is permeated by a nearly suffocating air of gravity and portentousness. Opener “The Unseen War” splits from its ambient overture into pounding bass and bewitched sax, heralding some imminent event of (creative) destruction. Here, Luca T. Mai’s reeds sound unnervingly possessed, as Zu charge to their own demise, piercing vertically out of the rhythmic mire to insinuate that the unknown of our origins, our universe, and our future is secretly machinating to destroy or disfigure us. The same crushing atmosphere dominates the five-minute title track, with Massimio Pupillo’s dogged bass and Gabe Serbian’s metronomic percussion clearing a blank slate for another round of Mai’s beyond-shrill horn, which in comparison to the feverish restlessness that characterized earlier outings is now increasingly mesmeric and incantatory, maintaining impossibly high notes in parallel with the band’s careering attempt to commune with a higher plane of existence.

Whether such a “higher” plane exists is, unsurprisingly, well beyond the scope of an album review written by an unpaid volunteer. But needless to say, it’s enough for Cortar Todo to induce the popular apprehension of the “something more” for it to stand as a disarming listen, regardless of whether this notion/phobia of a realm working below or beyond the surface is, at bottom, probably little more than a melodramatic way of reminding ourselves that there’s still much in our small world we don’t know, understand, or influence. Yet these metaphysical quibbles aside, there is one criticism that’s a touch more relevant to the Zu faithful, namely that the album’s songs aren’t quite as complex, devious, and exhilarating as those from previous records. Sure, “Rudra Dances Over Burning Rome” hurtles along at a blinding pace, snares a-popping and sax a-squalling, but it’s one of the few tracks to wield any of those wily changes in time signature for which they’ve become notorious. Later numbers, like the grinding “Orbital Equilibria” and the sludgy “No Pasa Nada,” all roll by in a more predictable 4/4, and even if they incorporate instances of maddening syncopation and (in the case of “Orbital Equilibria”) the slyness of an additive 3+3+2 meter, they’re still not quite as exciting, manic, or as furious as a “Beata Viscera” or a “Carbon.” In other words, they’re not as forceful, or better yet, not as indulgent of our predilections and biases.

Even so, it can’t be stressed enough how different and otherworldly Zu sound on Cortar Todo. Once it’s forgotten that the Italo-American combo aren’t quite as insane as they used to be, the supernatural hue of the album crystallizes into focus, disturbing and rousing the listener in equal measure. To take just one of several uncanny moments, when Pupillo’s distorted bass spins rapidly during “A Sky Burial” and Mai’s choked sax has a coughing fit at four and a half minutes, Zu transcend their mundane beginnings in punk-jazz skree to evoke something like a Millenarian passage into another world. And what’s impressive about this broadening and deepening of their thematic coverage is that it’s been achieved with only a few subtle adjustments to their sound, making it seem like the product of a very organic and irresistible evolution from the days when they were playing with Mats Gustafsson and Ken Vandermark.

Moreover, the apparent inevitability of this stylistic advance only reinforces the aura of predestination and fatality that haunts the album. Tracks like “Vantablack Vomitorium” employ brutalizing repetition to generate the sense that the world’s hidden trajectory can’t be avoided, and coupled with grueling saxophone half notes that sound like they’re trying to crack into another dimension, it acts on our collective unconscious to incite the foreboding that there’s nothing left for us to do but await the apocalypse. Indeed, given that the band ends proceedings with the moody strains of “Pantokrator,” which as a term was used to denote God in the prophetic Book of Revelation, it’s safe to end by saying that they don’t have particularly high aspirations for humanity. While my materialistic atheism would no doubt stop me from agreeing that God is going to kill us all, I’m happy to entertain the more grounded idea that environmental degradation or mass warfare could one day kill billions, so here’s hoping that our fear of such a scenario is embedded enough in our psyches for the blazing Cortar Todo to exert its “power” over us.

Links: Zu - Ipecac

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