Graded on a Curve: Painkiller,
Guts of a Virgin

How best to describe Painkiller’s Guts of a Virgin? The perfect gift for a deaf friend? Total and utter ear obliteration? Torture music for twisted death dwarves? The sound your head might make imploding?

None of them quite gets to the essence of this brutalizing and deranged melding of atonal jazz skronk and remorseless death metal grind, which is brought to us by avant-garde alto saxophonist and man about New York City John Zorn, bassist extraordinaire Bill Laswell, and one-time Napalm Death drummer Mick Harris. The ever-adventurous Zorn founded Painkiller in 1991, impressed by the intensity of grindcore, and on that same year’s Guts of a Virgin the trio set out to produce music that is every bit as challenging (and off-putting to normally adjusted human ears) as free jazz at its most uncompromising.

The formula is simple; Zorn screeches and squonks atop the churning and ugly din produced by Laswell and Harris, and the overall effect reminds of Minneapolis noise rock heroes Cows cranked up about a thousand notches. This is some menacing, in your face shit, and the occasional blood-curdling screams don’t help. Like the ones that pepper the astounding “Scud Attack,” for instance. Talk about your music for the end of the world; I’m sure there are people out there who’d sooner face a real Scud attack than listen to this baby.

Me, I love it because I love noise, just as I love the way “Damage to the Mask” suddenly lurches from its snazzy drum opening to become a galloping squeal-fest. The title track is a brief foray into shrieking free jazz, but with a bigger, badder bottom, and both it and 11-second follow-up “HanDjob” feature a demented set of tonsils that totally remind me of Cows Shannon Selberg, who would have made the perfect frontman for this band.

“Portent” also reminds me a bit of Cows at their most unhinged, while “Hostage” opens with Zorn doing his honest best to blow his saxophone to smithereens before stagger stepping along in a manner that defines the word “uncompromising.” Meanwhile, the 24-second “Purgatory of Fiery Vulvas” is pure unadulterated hardcore for people who like their hardcore without guitars, melody, or anything remotely resembling a hook. As for “Warhead,” it’s exactly what its title says it is.

The wonderfully titled “Dr. Phibes” is the gentlest track on the LP; Zorn blows more than he shrieks, and until the song’s chaotic middle the song could almost—and I must emphasize that almost—pass for very good soundtrack music. And then there’s “Devil’s Eye,” a slow battering ram of a song that features some really freaky noise and some of Zorn’s most dissonant horn blurt.

Painkiller sounds the way Morphine would have sounded had Morphine had serious rage issues. I strongly recommend this dystopian trio to proud laughing academy alumnae, people who think Lou Reed’s Metal Machine Music is for pussies, burgeoning serial killers, and free jazz geeks looking to take a walk on the even wilder side. I can only handle Painkiller’s blowtorch intensity once in a werewolf moon. That said, I think they may have their place in the psychiatrist’s armamentarium as an alternative to electroconvulsive therapy. Are you listening Dr. Benway?

GRADED ON A CURVE:
A-

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