John Zorn is arguably one of the few people who has done something with jazz that isn't redundant or insulting ever since Miles Davis hung up his machine. Execution Ground is an exhibit A for why: he's fearless. Who other than Zorn would have the nerve to pair up not only with Bill Laswell — whose career has hopscotched between jazz, downtown New York avant-gardism, and psychedelic dreamtime world-music — but with Napalm Death drummer Mick Harris? And not as a stunt, either, but because Zorn sees and hears things in the way folks like Laswell and Harris work that deserve more than just marginalization, ridicule, or sniffing dismissal.
Painkiller's first two albums, Guts of a Virgin and Buried Secrets, clocked in only long enough to be EPs, and the vast majority of the tracks on them were seething little blasts of sax, drums, and guitar borne from roughly the same place as Zorn's Naked City project. The main difference was that Naked City involved a slightly broader roster of musicians and a deliberately broader palette of sounds — even if the palette in question was being cut up and jammed into pieces with barely minute-long running times, if even that. I guess a collaboration with the likes of Harris was inevitable: when Napalm Death made history-of-a-sort with their one-second-long "You Suffer" and their three-second-long "Dead", it was only a matter of time before more (allegedly) respectable folks followed suit. To close the circle even further, former onetime Napalm Deathster Justin Broadrick, best known now for Godflesh, sat in on guitar on a couple of tracks, and the scorching results hint at possibilities still to be explored.
But then came Execution Ground, and it was like someone had reset the record player from 78 rpm to 16. The machine-gun spray of noise had turned into a slow-motion underground lava river, and the punkish-political bent of the songs — "Scud Attack", "Tortured Souls", "Hostage", "Dr. Phibes" — had been traded in for titles that evoked foreboding mysticism: "Pashupatinath", "Morning of Balachaturdasi" (a Nepali festival ritual), "Parish of Tama (Ossuary Dub)". Such references, and the simultaneously chilling and electrifying sonic atmosphere that go with them, are mainstays of many of Laswell's albums, and given that this was released on Laswell's own Subharmonic label it's safe to assume Laswell was the prime mover here.
Ground is split across two discs, with the first being the three major movements of the album and the second being "ambient" reworkings of two tracks. "Black ambient" might be a good name for what we hear on disc two: it's like hiding out in the back of a grotto and witnessing some kind of vile rite being conducted in slow motion, far out of reach. I find myself listening to the ambient disc far more often than the main one, if only because it functions — however perversely — as background music, and when I'm in certain creative moods I find something of that flavor helps.
A while back I wrote an early draft of this review in which I said, "Frank Zappa once released an album named Jazz from Hell, and if he hadn’t used that title it would have been tailor-made for this record." That was before I started to question the whole critical aesthetic of appealing to damage, as I've come to call it — the sort of thing where you're told this will mess you up, but that's why it's so good. I've grown tired of that attitude, in big part because it often says nothing about the work itself: whether it's interesting beyond the shock value or superficial attacks on mores or standards from which such things are often comprised. Execution Ground, and much of Zorn's other work under other labels, has a good deal more going for it than just the novelty of the attack.