Italian avant-jazz-metal-experimental band Zu released their first album, Bromio, in 1999. In the ensuing decade, they put out at least one release every year, collaborated with a diverse plethora of artists, worked with Steve Albini and Bob Weston, and released at least one album on Touch and Go. Still, they remained an open secret – visible, available, and yet somehow inaccessible and obscure, not unlike Dutch punk band The Ex. Zu’s big American splash did not come until 2009’s Carboniferous, which was released by Mike Patton on his Ipecac record label. In a way, it was Zu’s Martin Scorsese Presents: Gomorrah moment, gathering the Italian three-piece’s vapors from the atmosphere of the international avant-garde, and spraying the distillate directly into the consciousness of the American underground.
Sometimes things don’t go as expected. Even as Carboniferous was raking in positive press and raising expectations, the band were essentially preparing to go their separate ways. Drummer Jacopo Battaglia quit the group and was replaced by Gabe Serbian from The Locust. Bassist Massimo Pupillo took some time away for soul-searching, and saxophonist Luca T. Mai spent time on other projects. Despite the turmoil, American oddball music fans know what the band are capable of, and expectations are still very high for Zu. However, in comparison with Carboniferous and other past work, Cortar Todo is a different animal musically, and even more so spiritually. The contrast is subtle but stark, and it may well cause bewilderment among established fans and new listeners alike.
Carboniferous was riotously energetic in places and entrancingly moody in others. Tonally, the saxophone and bass achieved a baffling, unique palette with few peers. Rhythmically, the album possessed clean lines and a perplexing, intoxicating math rock feel. Opener “Ostia” practically jumped out of the speakers and trashed your living room, with free-jazz sax squeals, house/disco-hybrid rhythms and steel-edged harmonics flying all over the place. On the other hand, Cortar Todo opener “The Unseen War” is sheer doom at its outset, a giant BWOMP landing and squeezing all of the air out of the room. It is funereal and lugubrious and oppressive. Pupillo’s bass and Mai’s saxophone seem at times to comprise one diffuse, groaning behemoth. There are blastbeats and double bass now, compliments of Serbian, but they are small consolation against the loss of Battaglia’s jazzy touches and polyrhythmic joy.
“Rudra Dances Over Burning Rome” is groovy and upbeat, but even if it induces head-bobbing, it lacks a certain charm. There’s something very aggressive and humorless about the tone of Cortar Todo. Weird swerves that might once have been amusingly ridiculous somehow come off as standoffish. Perhaps it is the dull, gloomy, bassy mix, or perhaps the lack of jazz levity, but Cortar Todo is just not a fun album.
For metalheads who like their doom doomy, this shouldn’t be a problem, but recent converts and longtime fans will probably both notice that something is amiss with their beloved Zu. The polyrhythmically chugging title track and the mostly-brooding “Sky Burial” make up an 11-minute stretch of dark experimentalism, but there just aren’t enough standout elements to make them memorable. Mai’s saxophone theatrics feel almost perfunctory here, and without much in the way of earnest novelty, one might find themselves wondering what other doom experimentalists are out there trying weird things.
“No Pasa Nada” does standout, not by breaking from the dourness, but by fully embodying it. The song simply sounds like a big melodramatic funeral dirge. Unfortunately, this renders three to five other songs on Cortar Todo redundant. “Serpens Cauda” – a refreshingly light ambient piece that brings thoughts of hypnagogic air travel to mind – spells some relief. “Conflict Acceleration” could have been something. It sounds like early Lightning Bolt, but without the wild and speedy bombast that makes that band such an (earthly) delight to listen to.
It’s hard to know what to say about music that is this intentionally ugly and obtuse. Compared to this Cortar Todo stuff, a song like “Soulympics” sounds like a Top 40 Bassnectar Remix – and maybe that’s the point. Cortar Todo could be a pushback reaction to the relative popularity of Carboniferous, a step in a hostile musical direction, or a sign of turmoil within the band. But pushing aside speculation and taking the music as it sounds, Cortar Todo is an album that projects joylessness in its tones, rhythms and arrangements. If Zu refuse to have any fun with this material, then why should we?