Italian jazz mercenaries, Zu, have a long history of destruction. From their countless live shows and collaborations, the trio has peddled in a certain type of sonic terrorism. Theirs is a menacing, apocalyptic sound, always poised at the precipice of tearing everything down. Now, with their second album on Mike Patton’s Ipecac Records, following 2009’s Carboniferous, the trio once again takes a crack at dismantling the world. Cortar Todo, or “cut everything” in Spanish, is, in many ways, a much more restrained effort than previous albums. However, as their masterful control of intensity and dynamics shows, this selection of songs is not so much an IED as it is a carefully planned demolition.
For a point of comparison, Mike Patton is not a terrible one. He has toured with Zu and his various projects (Faith No More, Mr. Bungle, Fantômas) all resonate with the type of heavy, mathy metal that Zu works in. Still, in both attitude and approach, it seems that Cortar Todo could best be seen as a successor to John Zorn’s 1992 album, Leng Tch’e. Named after an infamous execution practice, often translated as "death by a thousand cuts," this single song record is a thirty minute sludgy dirge, an intense atmospheric exploration of pain and ecstasy. There is a cultural image of these intense, ecstatic performances given by jazz musicians, of the saxman, brow furrowed, veins bulging, whaleheart bursting. That’s precisely the sort of self-destruction Zorn and Zu are attempting to capture with their work. The opener, “Unseen War,” kicks off the album with a nighttime field recording of crickets chirping, but quickly gives way to a pummeling bass riff and tortured saxophone honking. It’s heavy and hypnotic, and even a little painful, as the sax is transformed into a sputtering cyclone and the object of sympathy moves from the player punishing himself to the instrument.
Following up, “Rudra Dances over Burning Rome,” is like being shot out of a cannonball. Blindingly fast riffs propel the listener along until crashing head first into another saxophone freakout. There is definitely a blueprint for most of these tracks, in that the bass and drums will provide a grounding for the saxophone to rip itself apart on top. However, each track goes through so many shifts and formal metamorphoses that it’s hard to notice. “Rudra” starts with a repetitive, grinding riff, but ends with dial-tone electronics, all while stopping at a dozen different places in between. Even something like the title track, which begins with a simple, stomping line and hi-hat ticks, escapes a boring, repetitive flavor by the sharp, spazzy incursions that completely reshape the song. As opposed to a group like Little Women that makes order out of chaotic whirlwinds of noise, Zu introduce chaos into their machinic marches, allowing it to be the guiding hand.
Cortar Todo isn't all skull-crushing bass and blood-boiling sax squeals, however. “Serpens Cauda” is a downright ambient palate cleanser of crackling electronics and smooth, melodious passages. It’s pleasant, but also a little sinister when clipped voices splinter in towards the end. For something so unlike the rest of the tracks, it fits well and shows that Zu can accomplish the same ends with a variety of tools. It’s just disappointing that it doesn’t mesh well with the following cut, “No Pasa Nada.” The lack of decent transition is doubly disappointing because they manage it well between “No Pasa Nada” and “Conflict Acceleration,” ending the former with some familiar crunchy electronics and drifting into the latter which successfully moves between electronic and metal.
The closer, “Pantokrator,” or all-powerful, is a truly fascinating piece. Beginning with a thick dirge, the voice of a man chanting surfaces, transcendent and unaffected by the seething grime boiling beneath his voice. The chant is a recording of a Shipibo medicine man, and its mystical character perfectly sums up the tensions between pain and ecstasy. As his chant slows, a noisy squall rages, threatening to deafen, until it drops away as suddenly as it appeared, leaving behind the nocturnal insects that started Cortar Todo. The return of the crickets adds an interesting element of narrative to the album, but more than anything serves to cast it as a transcendental experience, existing along an alternate conception of time, housed in an ecstatic and destructive paracosm.
There is definitely the possibility that some will be disappointed by Cortar Todo, given the high expectations that Carboniferous set. It is not so much a growling, flailing beast, but a crafted detonation. Cortar Todo is more the death rattle of a great factory, the industrial march falling apart as rust and decay change the chugging tune of operation, devolving into a final screeching knell before the sounds of nature rise through the ruin. Zu have lost none of their touch, but instead redirected and realigned their approach, testing out new ways to bring about the end of the world.