Ipsissimus is a studio album by John Zorn released on September 28, 2010, the fifth in his Moonchild series. It follows Moonchild: Songs Without Words (2006), Astronome (2006), Six Litanies for Heliogabalus (2007), and The Crucible (2008). The series features the Moonchild trio, made up of Mike Patton on vocals, Trevor Dunn on bass and Joey Baron on drums. Patton’s radical vocals are featured here, all guttural and bestial grunting, gibbering, whooping and howling. They’re joined, as on the preceding album, by John Zorn’s alto sax and Marc Ribot’s electric guitar. Zorn also provides the piano playing heard on the mellower track The Book of Los.
Ipsissimus was recorded and mixed at East Side Sound. It runs at 49 minutes and 20 seconds. It was released on Zorn’s own label, Tzadik.
Throughout the Moonchild project, Zorn attempts to balance careful composition with anarchic free improvisation, creating a controlled musical chaos. In line with the occult inspiration of the experiments, Zorn sees this as a fusing of the order of ritual with the spontaneity of magick. Zorn may have named the series Moonchild in part after the 1917 novel by British magician Aleister Crowley; indeed, Zorn dedicated the project to three of his cultural heroes: avant-garde dramatist, poet and essayist Antonin Artaud, French composer of ‘organised sound’ Edgard Varèse, and the aforementioned occultist Crowley. The album’s title refers to the highest grade of attainment in the Order of the Rosy Cross of the religion A∴A∴, in part organised by Crowley.
Though the album contains hardcore improv aplenty, Zorn makes room for enough melodic elements to make Ipsissimus a less challenging work than previous installments in Moonchild have been. Even Patton experiments with soft whispering and singing in key. Ipsissimus contains nine compositions including a variety of duos, trios, and quartets. There are three numbered ‘apparitions’ placed equidistant from each other through the album. Genre-wise, the album is as complex to categorise as the other Moonchild experiments. At times it reminds us of speed and death metal; at other times a fusion of jazz, rock and classical.
“Seven Sigils” takes the album off to a roaring, fearsome start. The Moonchild Trio is centre stage here, with Zorn entering at key points. His free-jazz soloing could almost be mistaken for Patton’s vocals at certain moments. The latter entertains the listener by scatting in unison with Dunn’s jazzy bass. Duration: 6:39
The Book of Los
The title refers to William Blake’s 1795 illuminated book of prophecy, a reworking of the ancient Genesis myth. Blake serves as an inspiration for the album’s theme but particularly influenced this track. Marc Ribot leads the musicians here, his lush guitar work almost lyrical and accompanied by the surprising intervention of Zorn on piano. The track gives the listener breathing space, a steady ritual that is nonetheless not untouched by Patton’s violent gibbering erupting out of its cool calm. Duration: 8:21
Dissonance is given free rein here. The apparitions are classically written and use the 12-tone technique pioneered by modern classical composer Arnold Schoenberg. Duration: 3:45
This very heavy track makes ample use of Patton’s metal roars amidst a fearsome rock guitar. Its title re-emphasises the theme of ritual. Duration: 5:33
Distorted bass kicks off this demonic track that features Patton ululating gibberish like Beelzebub himself, taking centre stage for his strange exorcism. The title means ‘emerald tablet’ and refers to a legendary section of Egyptian-Greek wisdom texts the Hermetica, said to contain the ultimate alchemical secret: how to create the philosopher’s stone that allows one to turn base metals into gold and silver. Zorn has explored this theme throughout the Moonchild series—no doubt the alchemical laboratory and the experiment within it are fitting metaphors for what is at work musically on the albums. Duration: 6:12
The improvised sound of this second ‘apparition’ is once again deceptive; the piece is, in fact, a rigorously composed work that incorporates modern classical techniques into a rock context. Duration: 4:10
This instrumentally more intimate track features Dunn and Baron as a duo creatively playing off each other’s sonic inventions. Zorn often uses demonic or mysterious creatures as the titles for his tracks in the Moonchild series; a changeling is the impostor child left by mischievous fairies after they steal the real one—a common spook in medieval literature. Duration: 6:32
In another more tuneful offering on this album, Warlock begins in a ballad structure. This peace is interrupted, however, by an all-out attack from the trio, replete with distortion, yowling and aggressive percussion. A warlock is the male version of a witch—someone who enjoys working specifically malevolent spells. Whether Zorn meets that description is up to the listener to decide. Duration: 4:57
The final apparition closes the album with a challenging and bracing atonality. Duration: 3:10
Noted reviewer of avant-garde music and Zorn fan Thom Jurek at All Music points out that the album is more eclectic than previous Moonchild albums and ‘feels far less focused’. Without presenting this as a criticism, he nonetheless gives the album 3.5 stars out of 5, a less enthusiastic endorsement than he had for previous offerings in the Moonchild oeuvre.
Snobb at Jazz Music Archives notes that the album will challenge conservative listeners but reward Zorn fans who are used to the radical sound of Moonchild. The reviewer goes as far to say it may be the best Moonchild release and awards Ipsissimus a sterling 4 stars.
In addition to his sax and piano playing, Zorn is credited as arranger, composer, conductor, producer, quotation author and creator of the album’s concept. Kazunori Sugiyama served as associate producer and Scott Hull mastered the album. Marc Urseli worked as an engineer and mixed the album.
On the CD packaging are paintings by the visionary Romantic poet and artist William Blake, while the cover design was provided as ever by Heung-Heung Chin.