John Zorn, Bill Laswell and Mick Harris have all been profiled on this blog before, but their project called PainKiller, which existed primarily from 1991 to 1998 and featured a brief reunion in Paris five years ago, featured a form of musical expression borne largely out of Zorn's late 1980s fascination with "grindcore."
This genre of metal consisting of extremely fast, intense, short bursts of buzz-saw guitars, guttural grunted and/or high pitched screamed vocalizing, rapid and intense "breakbeat" drumming, and imagery and lyrical content (should one find printed versions, because deciphering the vocals was all but impossible) largely pioneered by Napalm Death, for which Harris was drummer until he left in 1990. Zorn's grindcore obsession first manifested itself in his Naked City project, launched in 1988, but which included a typical Zornian smorgasbord of sounds from country to cartoon music to lounge jazz to surf music, as well as those blasts of grindcore played by such luminaries as guitarist Bill Frisell, drummer Joey Baron and the mighty Fred Frith on bass (rather than his usual guitar pyrotechnics.)
While Harris spent most of his career forsaking the drum set for projects like the so-called "darkwave" electronic music of Scorn, the glacial and involving ambient sounds of Lull, and a host of other projects including the mind-blowing collaboration of Eyeless in Gaza's Martyn Bates in the phenomenal trilogy of Murder Ballads recordings, he did resume his work with the kit in PainKiller for the golden opportunity of playing with two musical masters in Laswell's stellar bass work and the idiosyncratic alto sax playing of Zorn.
The first two records, Guts of a Virgin and Buried Secrets, both recorded in 1991 and released on the Earache label (Napalm Death's label), were short albums of roughly 25 minutes each featuring generally brief pieces of grindcore-influenced music, albeit with superior musicianship from Laswell and Zorn. The latter recording actually did feature longer pieces, two of which topped the six-minute mark (which in the early Napalm Death days could include a half-dozen or more pieces,) but there was only a slight derivation in overall sound.
After a hiatus, however, PainKiller reunited in June 1994 for the third album, the fascinating Execution Ground, which was released initially on the Subharmonic label which released Laswell's frenetic output at the time. Reflecting Laswell's growing interests in dub, ambient, and world music, this album featured some of the pounding grindcore sound, but more often morphed into strange and compelling excursions into wide-open sonic spaces largely influenced by dub and ambient textures, while the titles reflected the fascination Laswell had with India. There was an entire disc devoted to ambient reworkings of two of the three tracks on the first CD and reveal a side to the PainKiller project in which ample space proved to be no problem for the trio to revise their sound into something different but highly compelling.
Later in 1994, the trio embarked on a tour of Japan, a place that proved highly receptive to PainKiller's music. In fact, there were eventually three live recordings generated from Japanese performances over the band's lifespan.
When, however, Zorn sought to reunite the group for his amazing 50th birthday series of live performances and recordings in 2003, Harris declined to take part, his insecurity in his drumming having grown more prominent over the years. Hamid Drake, an excellent percussionist, filled in and a great performance was had, though purists might balk at not having Harris present.
As noted above, a one-time reunion show was played in Paris in 2008 and Harris reluctantly took his place behind the kit. He seemed, from the videos available on YouTube, to have played well enough, but no recordings have been issued and it appears likely that PainKiller has ceased to exist.
This is certainly difficult music and its intensity, power, disturbing cover art, and more is probably forbidding to most. But, for those who like adventurous music and can leaven their grindcore with dub and ambient (how many of you are actually out there?), Execution Ground is up your alley and then some. It is truly a unique and memorable musical excursion, even if it might leave you with disturbed dreams afterward!
The album, with excellent engineering from Oz Fritz on the first disc and Robert Musso, assisted by Layng Martine on the ambient disc, was packaged in 1997 with the first two albums and a live recording in Osaka as the four-disc box set Collected Works and kudos have to be given to Tomoyo T.L. for some of the most evocative and hauntingly beautiful cover art likely to be found anywhere--a trait found with many projects released on Zorn's Tzadik label.
PainKiller: Execution Ground (Subharmonic, 1994; Tzadik, 1997)
1. Parish of Tama (Ossuary Dub) 16:05
2. Morning of Balachatudasi 14:45
3. Pashupatinath 13:47
1. Pashupatinath (Ambient) 20:00
2. Parish of Tama (Ambient) 19:19