Zu: Carboniferous

Picked this one up thanks to a connection with German free jazz colossus Peter Brötzmann. Zu are an Italian trio consisting of Luca Mai on saxophone, Massimo Pupillo on bass guitar and Jacopo Battaglia on drums; Pupillo plays regularly with Brötzmann in a quartet that goes by the name of Hairy Bones. His ominously throbbing bass is a key element of that group’s sound, which was enough to make me want to check out the most recent release by his core group. Well, even though three-quarters of the Hairy Bones line-up mirrors that of Zu as regards instrumentation (the Brötzmann quartet boasts a trumpeter as well as sax, bass and drums), the two groups could not sound more different. Carboniferous owes little to free jazz, being a heavy and monolithic journey through math rock and metal.

What the album shares with metal is a healthy sense of its own preposterousness. The ten shortish tracks here all follow more or less the same template, being built on a foundation of pummelling bass and drums. Mai’s saxophone may nominally be the lead instrument but is mixed relatively low, its dirty skronky sound having to compete with the rhythm section for volume and intensity. On occasion the onslaught subsides and a moment of relative calm descends before the ensemble slams its way back into action. It’s hard not to raise a smile at the totality of Zu’s approach, at their determination to push everything they’ve got to its absolute limit. It’s like watching a boxer come out from his corner with fists flying, landing punch after punch on his hapless opponent, having a brief rest and then starting up again.

Given that Zu’s basic musical palette is so restricted, it comes as something of a relief when they call in a guest or two to add a little colour and interest. Indeed Zu are no strangers to collaboration, their discography including guest appearances from Mats Gustafsson, Damo Suzuki and Eugene Chadbourne among others. On Carboniferous they’re joined by avant-metal vocalist Mike Patton and Melvins guitarist Buzz Osborne (i.e. 50% of metal supergroup Fantômas). Patton lends vocals to “Soulympics” and “Orc”, his guttural growls adding to the knowing ludicrousness of the enterprise, while Osborne augments the group’s sound with steely lead guitar on “Chthonian”. But overall, the set lacks the ecstatic fervour of Brötzmann’s Hairy Bones or other sax-led troupes such as Gustafsson’s The Thing. Ultimately I find its bone-crunching aggressiveness samey and tiring.

The album was originally released in 2009, on CD only, on Patton’s Ipecac label. This vinyl issue on the Italian Trips und Traüme label comes in a gatefold sleeve, in an edition of 500 copies on grey vinyl (now sold out) and a further 1500 copies on black vinyl.

(Originally published in The Sound Projector 20, 2011)

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