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Blast Beat Improv: Metallic Free Jazz

Weasel Walter (center) had one goal in mind for The Flying Luttenbachers: pure sonic terror.
Courtesy of the artist
Weasel Walter (center) had one goal in mind for The Flying Luttenbachers: pure sonic terror.

According to legend, saxophonist John Zorn once looked out over a mosh pit at a Painkiller concert in Tokyo, excitedly leaned over to bassist Bill Laswell and exclaimed, "This is it! We've been waiting 10 years for this — slam dancing to free improvisation!"

It was a joke, kind of. Throughout the '80s and early '90s, Zorn and Laswell were at the epicenter of the shrillest form of jazz yet devised: metal-influenced free jazz. It's like peanut butter and chocolate: The two great tastes combined wonderfully, except the peanut butter is getting pummeled by 120 decibels of raw power. Early bands like Painkiller, Last Exit and Massacre took the ferocity of '60s free-jazz improvisation and matched the intensity — particularly the blast beats — of death metal.

There are plenty more metallic-inclined swingers out there (Mothguts and Ettrick come to mind), so feel free to sing their praises in the comments section below. Besides, it's almost Halloween, so what better way to gear up for a week of bad horror movies and haunted houses than with the shrieks of a saxophone as it seems to spew blood?

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Blast Beat Improv: Metallic Free Jazz


If you're going to start a grindcore jazz band, you might as well do it with credibility. So John Zorn asked former Napalm Death drummer Mick Harris to join Painkiller. Napalm Death's members were not only founding fathers of the raw and fast genre of grindcore, but also hold the Guinness World Record holders for the shortest recorded song. As with Napalm Death, there's more than a touch of cartoon to Painkiller: Zorn's saxophone shrieks like a B-movie banshee, song titles include "Guts of a Virgin" and "Purgatory of Fiery Vulvas," and Bill Laswell's bass is in-the-red without a true low-end. Painkiller also experimented with spacey dub and has, on occasion, featured the screams of Yamantaka Eye (Boredoms) and Mike Patton (Faith No More, Mr. Bungle) onstage, but the early-'90s recordings (Guts of a Virgin and Buried Secrets, both available on Collected Works) are the definition of evil jazz improv.

Last Exit

If Bill Laswell is remembered for anything (you know, besides producing "Rockit"), it's his keen ear for an unlikely combination. Out of all of Laswell's freely improvised rock and metal units (others have included Praxis, Material and Massacre), Last Exit is the most raw, with an emphasis on arena-sized chaos. Consisting of Peter Brotzmann (saxophone), Sonny Sharrock (guitar), Ronald Shannon Jackson (drums) and Laswell (bass), the quartet provoked audiences with sheer volume, and consequently found a loyal following in the hardcore punk scene. Even though the group's tenure was cut short by Sharrock's death in 1994, Last Exit is still the iron-fist standard of improvised power.

The Flying Luttenbachers

Weasel Walter had one goal in mind for The Flying Luttenbachers: pure sonic terror. In its 16-year history, a revolving cast of musicians left a trail of improvised violence, traversing the spectrum of noise, free jazz, punk, prog and metal. Or, rather, destroying it. Just seconds into "Storm of [Expletive]," and that's unmistakably clear. Revenge is one of the band's most metal-leaning free-jazz releases, propelled by drummer Walter's dead-on death-metal blasts of fury. Guitarist Chuck Falzone stings with a treble-heavy attack, as he furiously rips chords to shreds while bassist Bill Pisarri ignores the low-end altogether, opting instead to generate bloated noise. It's like being bludgeoned by a swarm of bees.


Yes, more Bill Laswell. Clearly, this guy can't get enough heavy-metal improv. But we'll skip past his wacky band with Buckethead and Bootsy Collins and shoot straight toward Massacre. Formed in 1981 with guitarist Fred Frith and drummer Fred Maher, this power trio was a bit more metal in name than in sound. 1982's Killing Time was a product of its era, skronking out early-'80s no-wave noise in only the way that trained musicians can. But the band's late-'90s reunion brought a new drummer (Charles Hayward) and a holistic sonic vision. Frith is the star here: His guitar histrionics unleash torrents of noise and Jimi Hendrix worship over Laswell's rumbling funk bass and Hayward's ringy thrash snare.


There's a lot to unpack in any given moment during an Ahleuchatistas song. But it's the kind of musical tug-of-war that sounds as jagged as it is graceful. Thankfully, the Asheville, N.C., trio is remarkably tight, with the ability to turn complicated and seemingly unrelated phrases on a dime. Not that any one member deserves all the credit (there's an "if one falls, all fall" vibe), but new drummer Ryan Oslance is outrageously gifted at his instrument, reining in all the sounds and deftly switching between pounding blast beats, technical swing and time signatures with the bigger numbers on top. More than previous Ahleuchatistas outings, Of the Body Prone allows the songs to explore deep territory, in the process keeping your ears plenty busy.

Lars Gotrich
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