Moonchild: Songs Without Words was released on April 18, 2006, and is the first of what would be known as the Moonchild Trio series of albums. The 45 minute 14 seconds long album was devised by John Zorn. Zorn doesn’t, however, play on the album, instead, the album features Mike Patton on vocals, Joey Baron on drums, and Trevor Dunn on bass. Zorn devised the pieces that make up the the album and instructed the musicians how to play.
Moonchild was released on Zorn’s own label Tzadik (TZ 7357) and is the first installment of what would become a series of seven albums.The album was recorded entirely in one day and pushes the boundaries of avant-garde rock into pure avant-garde. It is not unlike similar experiments by artists such as Fushitsusha, Ruins and Keiji Haino. Zorn conceives the album as a fusion of composition and improvisation in the form of rock. Conceptually, he sees this bringing together of structure and chaos as mirroring the dance between the hypnotic rigidity of ritual with the spontaneity of magical activity.
Zorn has stated the influences for the album are the British esotericist and occultist Aleister Crowley, the French avant-garde dramatist Antonin Artaud and the French vanguard composer Edgard Varèse. Zorn includes a quote from Antonin Artaud’s “The Theatre and its Double” in the liner notes.
Throttling intensity gets this album off to a screeching start. This track sounds like its title suggests.
Ghosts of Thelema
This track is a slow burn with a spectral atmosphere. It’s a relatively calm piece, softer than the other, more intense tracks, giving the listener some breathing space before what follows. A highlight here is Baron’s deft cymbal work in the middle of the song. The track’s title refers to the religion of Thelema, founded by Aleister Crowley, whose core principle is ‘do what thou wilt’. This is a nod perhaps to the magical improvisation Zorn puts at the heart of the album.
Abraxas is a convulsive, frenetic piece, violently percussive and practically set alight by Mike Patton’s hyena-like vocals. Continuing with the magical theme, the word ‘abraxas’ is an ancient Gnostic term that some believe to be the root of the word abracadabra.
This piece comprises a slow section with Patton’s breathy vocals and sinister chuckling followed by a more song-like section with a metal-rock feel. The rolling percussion and howls like searchlights in a misty graveyard do much to earn this track’s title. The name possession implies the demonic, and it’s inescapable to remark that throughout Songs Without Words, Patton frequently sounds like the subject of an exorcism.
This short-burst track is frenzied and berserk before coming to a sudden end. It perhaps mirrors the uproarious and short-lived campaign of exploits made by its ill-fated Roman emperor namesake.
This track begins slowly and emerges into a steady groove. This groove is repeatedly broken by a sudden, frenetic improvisational section that sounds like free jazz pushed to its event horizon, before a reassuring return to the beat. Here Mike Patton’s voice sounds like a saxophone performing an avant-garde solo. Continuing with the demonic theme, the title ‘616’ refers to the lesser known ‘number of the beast’ as described in the Bible’s final chapter prophesying the apocalypse and last judgement, Revelations.
Equinox is a rocker that proceeds at a breakneck pace. Percussive and penetrating, it forms the mid-way point of the album, as its name indicates.
Sounding like a haunted house, this slow burn track is accompanied by Patton’s death-metal growls and his fearsome saliva-clogged execrations. With its simple, slow, distorted bassline, it’s softer than much of the rest of Moonchild, allowing the listener to take stock. Its title (like that of the album itself) is presumably inspired by occultist Aleister Crowley’s 1917 novel of the same name.
Le Part Maudit
The name of this track is taken from a rather heterodox theoretical work in political economy by the unassuming French librarian and writer Georges Bataille. ‘Le Part Maudit’ means ‘the accursed share’, and it refers to that part of economic output which is destined to be consumed unproductively—in the form of gifts, lavish monuments or great sacrifices. The accursed share is the social organism’s excess of energy, that part which is not used for its reproduction in a stable, rational way but is expended, sometimes in ways that threaten the system itself. Zorn no doubt felt in choosing this title that this album is its own ‘accursed share’, a dramatic expenditure of excess energy—and it certainly sounds like that. And this track lives up to the name, with Patton’s black metal screeches sounding both sacrificial and cursed.
This piece takes a softer approach. The vocals are aspirating, hinting at the tendrils of spirits approaching. It is at times a-rhythmic, a break from some of the harsher rock sound of the rest of Moonchild. The track is appropriately titled, with a hushed tone like a spiritualist séance.
This much faster track puts the Joey Baron’s drum work at center stage. The driving percussion plays us out before the piece comes to an extremely dramatic halt, leaving Moonchild listeners in a state of suspense and perhaps shock.
Thom Jurek, noted writer on free jazz and avant-garde music, regards the album as anathema to jazz fans but recommends it for those who love Zorn’s avant-garde work or who are fans of Patton and Dunn. He calls the ‘song cycle’ a ‘new and brutally exciting form of rock music’, and is not shy of making comparisons to Captain Beefheart, Burzum and the black metal band Weakling. For Pnoom of the website Progressive Ears, Moonchild ‘manages [to] out-brutal brutal metal without being in the least bit metallic’.
Zorn is credited as arranger, audio producer, composer, conductor, producer and is responsible for the album’s concept. Mastering is by Scott Hull, translation by Bill Laswell. Jamie Saft worked as an audio engineer, as well as being an engineer with Bob Musso. Associate producer on the album was Kazunori Sugiyama.
The cover art was designed by Heung-Heung “Chippy” Chin.