The Last Judgment is the seventh and final installment in John Zorn’s Moonchild saga. It was recorded at East Side Sound in New York City and released on Zorn’s label, Tzadik, on the 18th of November 2014. The core Moonchild trio reprise their roles, with Joey Baron on drums, Trevor Dunn on bass and Mike Patton as vocalist. John Medeski makes it a quartet, joining on organ throughout, as on the preceding album Templars: In Sacred Blood.
It directly follows 2012’s Templars: In Sacred Blood and continues to tell the story of the Knights Templar, an elite troop within the Catholic Church who played a bloody role in the Crusades before coming to a sticky end themselves after the Church excommunicated them for heresy. The Templars were allegedly worshipping Baphomet (the Devil); they may have been secretly dabbling in Cathar, Gnostic and Cabbalistic religious traditions. Zorn has explored occult (hidden), magickal, ritual and religious traditions throughout the Moonchild septology. Indeed, the name ‘Moonchild’ is borrowed from pioneering British magician Aleister Crowley’s 1917 novel about a war between wielders of the supernatural arts. Zorn dedicated the Moonchild albums to Crowley, along with the modern French composer of ‘organised sound’ Edgard Varèse, and the avant-garde poet and dramatist Antonin Artaud. Zorn is most explicit about the occult, mystical themes on these last two records based around the Templars, particularly so in the use of lyrics. The spoken, sung or screamed poetry written by Zorn for vocalist Mike Patton on Templars and The Last Judgment make the ideas previously hinted at in track titles and album art much more concrete and narrativized here.
The Last Judgment is mellower than previous offerings and possibly the most accessible of all the Moonchild albums. The nine short pieces here are rigorously composed and lack some of the extremities of abstraction seen previously. The tracks are also generally shorter, emphasising concision rather than extended experimentation as seen on preceding Moonchild releases.In his own words, with the Moonchild
In his own words, with the Moonchild series, Zorn sought to ‘[combine] the hypnotic intensity of ritual (composition) the spontaneity of magick (improvisation) and in a modern musical format (rock)’. With this final album, Zorn is closest to the ritual end of the scale than on all the other works. Dunn and Baron’s rhythmic dynamism is as tight as ever, and Medeski is perfectly integrated into the quartet, providing both moody atmospheres and rock-out solos. Patton is quieter and more subdued than usual, taking centre stage less and instead, standing as a part of the ensemble.
In genre terms, there are elements of jazz, progressive rock and metal here, along with the broad avant-garde. Roman Catholic liturgical music also has a strong influence—for example in the use of Gregorian chant.
This track gets off to a groovy start with medieval-tinged organ riffs and tight interplay from Dunn and Baron on the bass and drums. Medeski’s playing is almost fugal. Patton delivers layered choral music in Latin before some familiar guttural execrations. The Latin title ‘Tria Prima’ refers to the ‘three primes’ of alchemy—another fascination for Zorn—discovered by Paracelsus, which show how two elements can be combined and react with one another to produce a third.
Dunn provides a grooving bass riff as Patton sings Zorn’s kitschy lyrics on Catholic themes before the track breaks into a hardcore metal slab of sound complete with black metal vocals. The title refers to the trinity of Catholic dogma—the father, the son and the Holy Ghost.
Resurrection treats listeners to foreboding drums with a lot of reverb, creating a sonic landscape like an empty cathedral, while Patton talks of mysterious things such as ‘water drawn from a well’. This track gets faster as it proceeds, with Dunn’s overdriven bass accompanied by Patton chanting ‘resurrection’ with building intensity. The word ‘resurrection’ here may well refer to Christ’s resurrection as well as the resurrection of silenced and crushed occult traditions that Zorn is attempting here with the Templars and elsewhere in the Moonchild series.
Le Tombeau de Jacques de Molay
Medeski’s organ begins this mellower track with a hymnal atmosphere. Very slow, this piece is appropriately funereal in sound. The name of the track means ‘the tomb of Jacques de Molay’ and thus refers to the demise of the Templars’ 23rd and last Grand Master. Though little is known of his actual life, legends surround this man who perished after Pope Clement V disbanded the Knights Templar in 1307. He was executed by being burned to death in the River Seine in 1314. There were rumours that he captured Jerusalem in 1300, that he cursed King Philip IV of France; he is still celebrated by some Freemasons for his defiance of his inquisitors.
This shorter track is lively in rhythm, sounding almost like a medieval folk dance as Baron’s drums and Medeski’s organ deftly duet. Delving into Halloween themes, Zorn’s title refers to a famous work of American horror literature from 1820.
Friday the 13th
Here Patton whispers Zorn’s poetry before a hard eruption of metal makes way for more percussive vocals and a rock-out organ solo from Medeski. The title, of course, refers to the well-known day of bad luck.
Medeski once again provides ruminative, medieval-sounding melodies on his organ, whilst Patton whispers over sound effects of wind and doors creaking. The name means ‘mercy’ in Latin.
Patton’s screeching is formidable here but quieter than heard on previous releases. His vocals are in lock step with Dunn and Baron, as Medeski’s fun organ playing starts to sound like a giallo soundtrack. The title ‘incant’ points to the ritual theme stressed on The Last Judgment and is apt considering Patton’s vocal work.
This final track, the Moonchild swansong, features Patton whispering over Baron’s brushwork as well as a surprisingly bebop bassline from Dunn. The ending is soft, a mellow ending to an album mellower than all previous Moonchild releases. It seems a strange choice of title, ‘slipway’, but it emphasises the lost, the liminal and the unknown—perhaps appropriate to the murky history and present of the occult Zorn has been exploring.
Antonio Poscic at the Free Jazz Collective gives the album a resounding 4.5 out of 5. For Poscic, the spirituality at work here, the ‘sacral, mystical’ themes, tame the usual aggression of Moonchild and lend to it ‘a sort of lyricism’. Poscic thus sees the suite in the light of early free jazz, which was often spiritual and ecstatic, even celestial, to its core.
John Zorn did not appear as an instrumentalist; he composed and arranged the suite of pieces on the album, wrote the lyrics and produced the album as well as devising the concept.Marc Urseli served as an engineer and mixed the album. Scott Hull provided mastering Kazunori Sugiyama worked as an associate producer.
The cross of the Knights Templar again features on the album cover. The design is by Heung-Heung Chin as on all other Moonchild releases. Continuing a tradition from other Moonchild releases, the CD comes with paintings, this time by François Marius Granet (1775–1849) and Hieronymus Bosch (1450–1516). Granet is best known for his depictions of church and convent interiors, mirroring the sonic landscape Zorn and his players create here. Bosch’s work is an appropriate fit for the themes Zorn explores throughout Moonchild—his gruesome depictions of hell and damnation and sinners given over to temptation in the garden of earthly delights. Photographs by Zorn himself are also included.