Black Box is American Puritanism at work.
Asian advocacy groups denounced John Zorn for putting graphic images on the covers of his Naked City albums. Torture Garden showed a topless Japanese woman brandishing a whip, while Leng Tch’e had a picture of a Chinese execution.
At first, Zorn ignored the protests, but when retailers started refusing to carry his albums, he compromised and wrapped the albums in opaque silver shrinkwrap.
It still wasn’t enough for the advocacy groups.
When Zorn decided to release both albums in the US, he housed them in a black box. Leng Tch’e, the most graphic of the two album covers, was originally released in Japan, where it didn’t stir any reaction.
Black Box is also two sides of the same aesthetic coin for Zorn.
Naked City built its reputation on quick changes, but as the composer wrote more music for the quintet, those changes became gradual, drawn out but just as drastic.
Leng Tch’e is one of the most intense works in the Naked City canon.
Guitarist Bill Frisell and bassist Fred Frith ground the 32-minute piece with long drones, while Joey Baron’s frenetic drumming gives the piece a sense of momentum.
By the time Yamantanka Eye enters with his screaming, 15 minutes had already passed, though it doesn’t feel like it. Zorn himself chimes in with his most abusive saxophone playing at the 21-minute mark, and Leng Tch’e hurtles to a conclusion.
Half an hour is a pretty long time for a band to lose its way on a single piece, but Leng Tch’e develops at a pace that keeps a listener’s attention. Even if the listener isn’t fully engaged with the work, its brutal intensity works subconsciously.
Where Leng Tch’e is a single-track disc, Torture Garden has 42 tracks, most clocking under a minute. Twelve of them appeared on the band’s self-titled, major label debut.
Where Leng Tch’e assaults slowly and ominously, Torture Garden hits with a series of quick jabs. This time, the intensity is shown for what it is — fast, furious, frenetic.
Unless you’ve inured yourself to Naked City’s rapid-fire, live splicing — that is, if you’ve haven’t already played the self-titled album to death — Torture Garden can be sensory overload.
If it weren’t for the sheer physicality of this music — just picture the kind of muscle it takes to drum like Baron on this album — Torture Garden could be considered the band’s most homogenic.
All the tracks are so insistent on pummeling the senses, there’s really no point citing any individual moments. “Gob of Spit”, though, is probably the band’s most humorous track.
And “Speedfreaks” exemplifies one of the best description
of the band — like listening to the radio when someone constantly switches the station.
That doesn’t stop Torture Garden from being an impressive display of showmanship, chemistry and force.
However much the cover art of Torture Garden and Leng Tch’e may make a person squeamish, they’re pretty reflective of the music therein.
The music of Black Box is not pretty. It’s some of the fiercest ever created. Perhaps the finest as well.