The Crucible is the fourth album in John Zorn’s Moonchild series, a sequence of works featuring the Moonchild trio: Joey Baron on drums, Trevor Dunn on bass and Mike Patton on vocals. In addition, Zorn joins them on alto sax, while the eclectic Marc Ribot features as a guest guitarist on the fourth track, “9×9”.
Zorn’s saxophone adds a measure of melody to the usual atonal (controlled) chaos of a Moonchild album, while Ribot helps to provide a surprisingly mainline rock break in “9×9”. Patton’s vocals are as acerbic as ever, featuring the typical mix of grunts, howls, whoops and much more, though with some added melodic work this time too. Listeners are treated to manageable track lengths here, in a change from some of the more extended experiments on the previous Moonchild albums.
“Maleficia” stretches eight minutes but the rest are solidly within the two to eight-minute range. The album was released on November 25, 2008, is 44 minutes 22 seconds long, and was released on Zorn’s label, Tzadik.
The Crucible continues Zorn’s exploration of esoteric and occult themes; Tzadik’s own notes on this experimental work describe it as ‘intense journey into the worlds of magic, alchemy, and witchcraft’. Thematically, The Crucible fuses the modern and the medieval.
In terms of genre, The Crucible, like the other Moonchild albums, is hard to place; the best description is to say it sounds like a mixture of modern classical, doom metal, rock, and free jazz.
The album kicks off with a fearsome scream in unison of both Patton’s voice and Zorn’s alto. This sonic marriage is shown time and again throughout the album, the two sometimes sounding in unison at unbelievably dexterous speed. Patton’s warped version of scat singing can be enjoyed here. Post-scream, the track dives into a deep groove provided by Baron and Dunn. The word ‘almadel’ refers to a kind of magical altar of ancient vintage. Duration: 7:10
Patton is almost melodic here, in exciting combination with Zorn’s free-wheeling alto sax. Though he seems to be barking out words, Patton is, as usual, exclaiming powerful gibberish, or his own made-up language. Duration: 3:19
On this darkest of the tracks, Patton descends into some black metal vocals that make him sound like Beelzebub himself, intoning as only he can in his made-up Satanic language. The title ‘maleficia’ is Latin, meaning works of malevolent magic. The term is known from several works including the famous piece of witch-hunting literature, the Malleus Maleficarum (Hammer of the Witches) of 1486. Duration: 8:13
This track is a change of pace, a shockingly rocky interlude that sounds like a fusion of Zeppelin and free jazz improv. Tuneful, tonal and groovy, it yet doesn’t shy away from featuring Patton’s challenging vocals: at times, here, he sounds like a man with bees trapped in his throat. Duration: 5:37
“Hobgoblin” takes the listener back to the Moonchild norm, with a call-and-response interplay between Patton and Zorn. The track features a Latin groove provided by Baron and Patton extends his range further, even beatboxing. The track ends in a chaotic sonic bedlam. Zorn doesn’t have the Spiderman villain in mind here—a hobgoblin is a mischievous spirit, often a household nuisance. The title brings out the humorous, puckish side of Zorn’s sometimes scary musical misdeeds and thematic excursions into the occult. Duration: 2:54
This track begins with an eerie soundscape undergirded by a steady bassline. Zorn’s sax is sombre, mournful, even plaintive, before diving into consummate free-jazz sheets of sound, full of skronking and honking. Continuing the supernatural monster theme, this track is titled after the incubus. The male version of a succubus, these creatures enter women’s bedrooms in the night to engage in sexual acts with them, sometimes leading to long-term health problems. Duration: 7:44
A complex bassline from Dunn hints at math rock on this chasing-fast track which features Patton and Zorn jabbering together with dextrous precision. It ends in a united scream from Patton’s vocal cords and Zorn’s alto sax. The frightful character of this track reflects the atmosphere of the torturous witch-hunting activities referred to in its title, ‘Witchfinder’. Duration: 3:44
Jazzy and distorted, this final track features melodic alto sax and some fearsome gibbering from Patton to close. Zorn’s passionate overblowing is a highlight. The magical and ritual connotations of its title ‘The Initiate’ are obvious. Duration: 5:41
Mark Corroto at All About Jazz believes the album will be enjoyed by both hardcore metal and jazz fans. It gained a four-star review from All Music and five stars from Consequence of Sound. Adam Kivel at the latter site is fulsome with praise but criticises 9×9 as too clear and comprehensible to fit in with the rest of the album and the overall Moonchild oeuvre. But he nonetheless regards the album as a sterling contribution in Zorn’s body of work, ‘breathtaking, full of weird wonderment’.
James at Metal Reviews celebrates Joey Baron’s ‘almost tribal drumming’ and Dunn’s ‘thick, heavily distorted, metal-inspired bass grooves’, awarding the album an 85 out of 100 score.
As well as playing alto sax, Zorn worked as the arranger, audio producer, composer, conductor, producer, wrote the liner notes and was responsible for the album’s concept. Scott Hull mastered the album, Kazunori Sugiyama was its associate producer and Marc Urseli was responsible for mixing and recording.
Designed once again by Heung-Heung ‘Chippy’ Chin, the cover art shows a broiling cauldron, a fitting metaphor for the sonic experience created. Scott Irvine provided the photography.