Review Summary: Naked City release a structured album of their usual madnessNaked City (1988-1993) were:
John Zorn – alto sax
Bill Frisell – electric guitar
Fred Frith – bass
Wayne Horvitz – keyboards
Joey Baron – drums
Yamatsuka Eye - session vocals
For those unfamiliar with them, Naked City was one of the many projects of avant-garde composer John Zorn
and was essentially a way for him to inject his trademark bizarreness into as many genres as he could lay his hands upon, from ambient jazz to surf rock to his own bastardised version of grind. The band – an impressive group of established jazz musicians playing as a rock unit – threw transitions to the wind and juxtaposed these genres to their hearts’ content, and the result was a sound that constantly reinvented itself and was fun enough to be surprisingly listenable, as exemplified on their self-titled debut
(if you are reading this but have not yet heard that album, then stop immediately and listen to it.) However, on Radio
Zorn focused on structuring the album as a whole more coherently, offering a calculated progression of songs instead of the jumble of everything and anything that worked so well on previous outings. The tracks are arranged in rough order of insanity, starting accessibly and finishing in full chaos, so that the overall experience is as off-the-wall as should be expected, but is executed more logically than usual. Whilst this was a pretty smart idea, it had mixed consequences, as will be analysed.
Broadly speaking, the album has three main sections: the first part (Asylum-Sex Fiend
) features eccentric (but listener friendly) jazz rock jams, the second (Razorwire-Bone Orchard
) is more sporadic and markedly darker, but still a fairly coherent experience, and the final section (I Die Screaming-American Psycho
) is distorted chaos that relies primarily on the band’s trademark grind-based style. I find this ordering of songs very ambivalent; on one hand, giving each style its own space allows ideas to be developed more fully than the band’s past penchant for sudden and extreme change had allowed – Sunset Surfer
and The Vault
are just two examples of tracks that thrive on being able to dwell on a single mood for their entirety. Furthermore, the theme of descending into madness is effective and makes for a rewarding listening experience – it’s oddly satisfying to hear the album become darker and more twisted throughout its runtime, culminating in the complete disorder of American Psycho
, which rivals their debut in randomness and range of genres. In this sense, Radio
is a slick and powerful whole that is structured so as to function as a single experience.
However, the flipside is that this arrangement breaks one of Naked City’s core principles – to create the most unexpected combinations of genres possible. Sure, there are some “what just happened there” moments, such as the mellow jazz piano break in the otherwise nightmarish I Die Screaming
, the ambient outro of Bone Orchard
and all of American Psycho
, but on the whole Radio
is quite predictable, and that can’t help but feel like a disappointment when it comes from the band who once shattered any semblance of structure with tracks like Graveyard Shift
and Punk China Doll.
Make no mistake – the songs here are consistently excellent and flow into one another very well, but after hearing how well Naked City played songs that transformed so quickly and so often into whatever the listener least expected, the relative sensibility of these songs brings a frustrating feeling of not being what the band did best.
It is a great shame that Radio
’s relative tameness allows it to seem overshadowed by the band’s more daring ventures of the past, because the material here is still very impressive. There are no weak tracks here, but some moments are particularly strong – the haunting intro and menacing unison in Metaltov
, the gorgeously melodic Sunset Surfer
, the gigantic riffs and eerie atmosphere of Bone Orchard
and the creative jam of Terkmani Teepee
are all classic Naked City. Other tracks of note include The Vault
, which combines downright frightening guitar-led sections that almost sound like black metal with interludes reminiscent of unusually creepy elevator music to great effect, and American Psycho
, which concludes the album by deploying every weapon in the band’s arsenal in the most random, bewildering fashion imaginable. Some (including me) may find it too chaotic or challenging to enjoy, but its complexity is still jawdropping.
Although the band’s characteristic habit of using noise and feedback pervades Radio
and most of the second half is not for the faint of heart, I would recommend this to any fan of John Zorn, instrumental rock or experimental music in general; Radio
is an excellent album by an outstanding band and is possibly their most accessible outing. Despite the aforementioned mixed implications of this last statement, it is consistent, inventive and flat-out rocks.