When, in 1990, the effort by YHB to explore a wide variety of music (or, at least organized, sound) was launched, one of the earliest explorations into some of the more extreme forms of music/sound came with the Torture Garden album by Naked City. And, at the time, it didn't get too much more extreme than this, though newer forms of music/sound make this stuff seem pretty quaint nowadays!
This project was spearheaded by the fantastically iconoclastic and polymusical (is that an actual word?) figures in modern music, alto saxophonist John Zorn, who had become infatuated with grindcore and other extreme forms of music/sound as exemplified by such groups as Godflesh and Napalm Death (whose original drummer, Mick Harris, will be featured here later, including in the remarkable trio PainKiller with Zorn and uber-bassist/producer Bill Laswell.)
Whereas many could argue that the musicianship in hardcore/grindcore/whatever-you-want-to-call-it-core may not be technically proficient (as if that matters,) the lineup that Zorn pulled together in Naked City is phenomenal. Guitarist Bill Frisell, bassist Fred Frith, keyboardist Wayne Horvitz and drummer Joey Baron are all masters of their respective instruments, though never heard in a context like this. Joining the esteemed ensemble is vocalist Yamatsuka (Yamantaka) Eye of the legendary Japanese punk collective, The Boredoms.
In under 26 minutes, Naked City blasts, rips, tears, wails, careens, caterwauls, screams, and plows through forty-two "hardcore miniatures" that run the gamut of sounds that use or mirror music boxes, cartoon soundtracks, dub, jazz, country (yes, country), metal, and many other types/genres/varieties, often in the same forty-two second or eight-second tune. Tempos abruptly shift, Eye's screams come and go, the tinkling of the piano's ivories give way to Frisell's wailing guitar, Baron's pounding drums segue into a dub beat, Frith's bass goes from fuzzy to jazzy to something more guttural and menacing, and Horvitz goes from that piano to an organ in seconds. If anything, the only constants are Eye's "vocal" gesticulations and Zorn's wailing sax (though, on occasion, he peels off a calmer riff or two.)
As to the tunes, there are many notable examples of the Naked City aesthetic to bring up. "Speedfreaks", in all of 52 seconds, is a cut-up mish-mash of every conceivable style Zorn can cram into it, but it's also fascinating, which can be said for the 48-second "The Prestidigitator" as well. "NY. Flat Top Box" has a country shuffle feel for much of the piece, before some hardcore blasts interrupt, and then comes a sweet finale back to the earlier feel. "Hammerhead" is a 12-second blast of unalloyed noise. The last several seconds of "The Blade" is Eye bellowing the most hair-raising scream perhaps on record (and, hence, gives the tune its title?]
"Igneous Ejaculation" [yes, you have to accept some of these titles as part of the gallows humor that drives much of this music; if not, you're merely disgusted, but, then you'd have to see the cover art, too] is a prime example of Baron's spectacular drumming, which actually is well displayed throughout the album, such as in "Ujaku." "Fuck the Facts" and "Blooduster" are more powerful bursts of propulsive and unforgiving hardcore.
"Jazz Snob Eat Shit" along with "Perfume of a Critic's Burning Flesh" and "New Jersey Scum Swamp" [which might have foretold a certain reality show now entering its last season?] give some idea of the "crude humor" that informs much of the record. "Shangkuan Ling-Feng" starts with a snippet of a martial-arts film before launching into a killer riff, some sax/vocal screaming, a brief organ interlude, and then that riff followed by more sax/vocal bellowing and Eye's guttural grunt to conclude. Finally, there is the fitting album closer, "Gob of Spit," which is to be taken literally, courtesy of Eye's true-to-life vocalization.
As to some of the more hardcore elements of this record, having heard Hüsker Dü's Zen Arcade six or so years before probably helped calibrate the ears somewhat for Torture Garden, although there is nothing that can really prepare anyone for the experience of hearing this record. There are other Naked City albums that move into more darkly ambient (Absinthe), slowly grinding (Leng T'che) and schizophrenic (Radio and the first, eponymous album) territory, as well as a pretty impressive live album that skillfully recreates the abrupt stylistic and tempo changes on most of the records.
Torture Garden, though, has a strange, special place all its own. For all of its musical mayhem, a listener would have to bring a particularly twisted (yet, healthy) sense of humor to the experience. Otherwise, it might only take a minute, or thirty-eight seconds past that, or forty-five seconds further, to become completely disgusted and turned off by the spectacle.
And, this doesn't even deal with the cover art, consisting of one very colorful cartoonish artwork that is too graphic to even describe adequately in words, and a half-dozen or so photographs of intricate bondage scenes involving Japanese women. The art work led Zorn's then-label, the respected Nonesuch, to balk at using the images, upon which Zorn left the label for the smaller Shimmy Disc.
There's a recollection that Asian-American activists raised objections at the appearance of the cover (YHB had an early cassette version of the album), which led to its revamping. Ironically, the album cover design, illustration, and photographs were done by Japanese and Japan has a particularly notable subculture of hyper-violent cartoon art and sexually-themed photography, such as bondage, that has been going on for years.
It might be worth noting that this was not that long after the Robert Mapplethorpe exhibit dustup in Cincinnati and Tipper Gore and the PMRC's "crusade" against filth and depravity in the music industry, so the shock value and absurdist humor of some forms of music, including the determinedly downtown version found in Torture Garden, don't translate well to lots and lots of people. Even if the musicians on this record are all masterful and came up with a record that is fun, fascinating, rocking, trippy, bewildering, and, yeah, kooky.
Then again, that seems to describe much of John Zorn's oeuvre over a long and unpredictable career. Which is why he's so cool.