Six Litanies for Heliogabalus was released on March 27, 2007, and is the third offering in John Zorn’s ‘Moonchild’ series, each installment of which features the famous trio of Joey Baron on drums, Trevor Dunn on bass and Mike Patton on vocals. It’s also the third and final work in his ‘Astronomy’ trilogy, capping off the achievements of Moonchild: Songs Without Words and Astronome, both released in 2006. The album was released on Zorn’s own label Tzadik.
Zorn has previously made nods to decadent Roman Emperors, for example, the track ‘Caligula’ on Moonchild: Songs Without Words. Now he dedicates a whole album to the cross-dressing third-century head of state named Heliogabalus (204-222), who was eventually assassinated for his excesses. No doubt the revelry, Bacchanalian chaos and transvestism of Heliogabalus’ exploits form a metaphor for Zorn’s mixing and breaking of musical boundaries and tie in with the theme of sacrificial excess found on both former releases.
With the Moonchild albums, Zorn declared his intention to combine ‘the hypnotic intensity of ritual (composition) with the spontaneity of magick (improvisation) in a modern musical format (rock)’. Unlike the previous works, Zorn makes an appearance as an instrumentalist here, on alto sax. Also unlike on the preceding albums, new players are added beyond the trio, making it a sextet: these include Martha Cluver, Abby Fischer and Kirsten Solleck-Avella as a three-voice female chorus, Ikue Mori on electronics and Jamie Saft on organ. All of which makes for a fuller and more complex sound here than in the two previous experiments.
But what genre is Six Litanies? As ever it’s hard to say. The work brings together classical, heavy metal, hardcore thrash, structured improvisation and free jazz without being reduced to any one of these categories. Each track is a ‘litany’ or prayer for the ill-fated emperor Heliogabalus, and is titled simply by its number in the sequence of six.
Like the other releases in the Moonchild series, the album is devoted to his beloved avant-garde culture-workers Aleister Crowley, legendary magician and founder of the Thelema religion, Edgard Varèse, French composer of ‘organised sound’, and the French poet and dramatist Antonin Artaud.
Not unexpectedly, this track kicks off heavily. Complex bass riffs are overlaid with Patton’s berserk shouting vocals. At the half way point, silence interrupts, followed by Saft’s soft organ accompanied by the female chorus. An almost religious sound is achieved here—the album is, after all, a set of prayers—backed by Mori’s bizarre electronic soundscapes. Zorn introduces his free jazz sax antics before a final very quiet section full of whispers and atmospheric Hammond chords.
A heavy start sees deft, complex electronic work joined by organ runs and Patton grunting in his usual animal language. For a moment a cooler section with a straight beat interrupts the bedlam before the madness resumes. A calmer, melodic part then follows, complete with a female chorus of chuckles that seems to dramatize the gaiety of one of Heliogabalus’s Rabelaisian parties. But then, of course, Patton bursts in with his fearsome vocals, resuming the rigorous but chaotic noise work.
Saft’s atmospheric organ chords provide a warmth that is offset by Patton reaching some of his most intense vocal exertions yet. Whispering and chanting from the chorus while Baron tickles his cymbals create an ambience like a graveyard. In a break from the usual nonverbal violence of Patton’s vocals, Latin sentences that seem to be about Heliogabalus’ infamous floral mass murder are uttered here, and the word ‘Heliogabalus’ is incanted over and over like a spell; these are perhaps the ‘litanies’ to Heliogabalus after which the album is named. After the listener has caught their breath through this softer section, a heavier part interrupts as drumrolls accompany Patton’s screeching. A sudden silence follows before a female voice begins singing in a way almost as celestial as Hildegard von Bingen. The track ends with mysterious electronic sounds provided by Ikue Mori that sound not unlike the work of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop.
Here we are treated to eight minutes of Mike Patton alone, solo. This intense solo is one of pain, ecstasy, sacrifice, and excess that at times has Patton sounding like multiple vocalists at the same time. From porcine grunts to neighs to squeals and whoops, Patton shows his full range of vocal dexterity. Though the sparseness of this track provides some change from the fullness of the ensemble on the other tracks, Patton’s vocalisations are as unsettling as ever.
This penultimate litany takes off with a heavy section that sees Baron and Dunn playing off each other contrapuntally before the chorus and Saft’s warm organ chords enter quite abruptly. Zorn joins the fray, providing voluminous sheets of sound on his alto sax. Chromaticism on the Hammond sounds like a deranged fairground before we are plunged into silence in a cliff-hanger ending.
From medieval-sounding unison singing by the female vocal trio to Patton’s characteristic screaming and an intense, heavy experimental section, to Ikue Mori’s electronic trickles, the sixth litany is a theme-park-ride tour through the full range of musical styles displayed on Six Litanies, a nice summary of the previous five pieces. We’re left with a sudden, intense scream and the shock of silence in conclusion.
The consummate critic of the avant-garde Thom Jurek at Allmusic calls the album ‘a burning pyre of music’ and a ‘wicked good time’. He praises the work for its balancing the prowess and distinction of the individual musicians with the harmony of the ensemble as a whole and regards it as a ‘crowning achievement in this series so far’. Meanwhile, Slaapkamers at Sputnik Music celebrates Zorn for ‘destroying tradition’ on Six Litanies. The variety of this album comes in for much praise, distinguishing it from earlier efforts in the Moonchild series, which have come in for critique for monotony.
As well as playing alto sax, Zorn is credited as arranger, composer, conductor, producer and is responsible for the album’s concept. James Dellatacoma serves as an assistant engineer. Scott Hull mastered the album. Bob Musso worked as an engineer along with Bill Laswell who also provided mixing translation. Kazunori Sugiyama was associate producer.
Once again Heung-Heung “Chippy” Chin provides cover art, in this case, an image of scattered rose petals. The image is no doubt a reference to the perhaps apocryphal tale that Heliogabalus once smothered to death a number of his party guests by releasing flowers from a false ceiling. The story was immortalised in an 1888 painting by Anglo-Dutch artist Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema; the disc comes with reproductions of Alma-Tadema works.