Oct/Nov 1998 Miscellany

Subaural Thrash: the Complete Works of Painkiller

Review byRichard K. Weems

Painkiller is John Zorn (saxophone, vocals), Bill Laswell (bass) and Mick Harris (drums, vocals). Without the name, the makeup of the trio sounds more like the recipe for a lounge act, any place the smoke will be thick and people are going to hum along to "Misty," no matter how many times they've already heard it.

Throw in the band's name, though, and you have improvisational thrash tinged with ambient grooves and a boatload of primal screaming, not to mention the occasional lick of dub reggae. The music is full and deep and will toss you around in a matter of seconds (as is the case with "Handjob," "Purgatory of Fiery Vulvas" and "Trailmarker," which altogether total not even a minute's worth of music) or quell you with twenty minutes of oceanic groove (as in "Pashupatinath (Ambient)"). Sometimes, Painkiller gives you both in the same song.

Known in their time mostly through those in the know up in New York City (and by some very lucky crowds in Japan), Painkiller was a three-year effort that started in 1991. They released four recordings: the EPs Guts of a Virgin and Buried Secrets, the two-album Execution Ground and a live recording from Osaka, which graced only select stores in Japan. In continual reverence to John Zorn, their executive producer, the Tzadik label has released all four recordings and a bonus track in a four-disc package amply titled Painkiller: the Complete Studio Recordings 1991-1994 (Tzadik has been rereleasing many of John Zorn's older works, from his first recordings of 1973 to his film scores and a previously unavailable—in America, at least—recording from his band Naked City).

Painkiller was a creation of three icons of underground music. Mick Harris was the original whirlwind of percussion behind Napalm Death; John Zorn has been blowing saxophone (and bird whistles and kazoos and pots and pans and vacuum cleaner hoses...) in New York City since the 1970's; and Bill Laswell is the master ear behind such bands as Praxis (featuring Funkadelic veterans Bootsy Collins and Bernie Worrell) and Material (featuring everyone in the world at some point of the band's continued reincarnations, including Whitney Houston). The idea was to see if improvisation could make a crowd mosh (and mosh they did). Perhaps another idea was to explore the sounds of a band without lead guitar, a must to your typical rockers.

Each member of the trio brought to the table his own talent and extraordinary magic. Mick Harris brought the sheer power a drum kit could offer, the reality that there could be but one man, a mere pair of arms and feet, behind an insane flurry of percussive attacks and cymbal crashings. Also, he brought that primal wail that sent the early recordings of Napalm Death (the days of thirty-minute albums graced by forty or more songs) to their psychomaniac height. John Zorn brought the virtuosity of saxophone—the ability to make the most extraordinary range of sounds, from wails and squeals to the kind of breathy riffs film noire ran their credits in front of. He brought the ability of quick-change, the precision of switching from a steady, droning groove to high pitch mayhem in the space of a breath (more often switching tempos in the same breath, having been inspired by Carl Stalling and his scores to Warner Brothers cartoons). John Zorn also brought the ability to play along to anything. Soul, ska, bebop, hip-hop, Beach Boys or Dead Boys, Zorn could find a way to slip in some saxophone and never let it sound out of place.

The real crux of this band, though, was Bill Laswell. Only he could round out the efforts of this spectrum of influence. His name has held the producer's spot on albums from the Ramones and Mephiskapholes to the Japanese drumming band Kodo and jazz great Pharaoh Sanders. A Bill Laswell production distinguishes itself not for sounding like every other Bill Laswell production (like, for instance, the efforts of Bob Rock or the David Bowie influence on Iggy Pop) but for not sounding like any other Bill Laswell production. John Zorn often holds the spotlight in Painkiller with his high trills and lung-bursting blasts, and Mick Harris may mesmerize with his drum rolls that make Alex van Halen's beats as tedious as a pair of shrunken old dams operating a crusty red Bonneville, but it's Laswell that maintains Painkiller through its plethora of sounds. No matter if it's the unremitting noise of "Damage to the Mask" or the sine wave of crescendo and liquid slide in "Parish of Tama," Bill Laswell drives the atmosphere with a steady foundation of bass—nothing too fancy, but always just right.

In all, the Painkiller complete recordings will give you a full range of experience, offerings selections for all tastes—a lot of the short, hard material lies in wait on one disc, while the more ambient tracks sit on another, a considerate allowance for those whose moods may shift in trying to decide what to listen to. The dynamic of having all three performers keeps things from completely giving themselves over to, say, the purist speed-dementia of Mick Harris or the disparate noise that can too often grace a lot of John Zorn's solitary efforts. We never even sink fully to the depths of Bill Laswell's thalassic ambient whalesong, the likes of which can be found on the Subharmonic label with such notaries as Jah Wobble and the California mutant guitarist Buckethead, the kind of ambient that would make Brian Eno look like a speed freak. Just as any one sound seems to be taking over, it is instantly thwarted by another in a very refreshing way. The mega-quick, three-second "Trailmarker" is rounded out right afterward by the bass-heavy "Blackhole Dub."

But the real gems by far are found in selections from Execution Ground. Rather than hit us with several songs, each sporting its own musical style, as in the Guts of a Virgin and Buried Secrets EPs, Execution Ground offers fourteen to sixteen minute assaults that take us through every mood of the ensemble. Zorn's peals on the sax meld slowly into a cascade of screams by Mick Harris, moving then so slowly into the subconscious (and subaural) thumps of Bill Laswell, and we come to an end strangely pacifying and complete. This was indeed the height of their artform, and their live disc reinforces that: the audience sounds both mesmerized and enraged. Slowly, oh so slowly, we have been breaking down the categories of music and find it harder and harder to call one thing 'rock' while we call another thing 'alternative' or 'pop.' Painkiller offers us music that transcends all—slow and fast, hard and soft, Painkiller offers up music worth a serious listen.


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