Secret Chiefs 3 - Xaphan: Book Of Angels Volume 9
Klezmery Avant-Jazz Rock
11 songs (55:29)
Release year: 2008
Reviewed by James

For anyone wondering where Mr Bungle man Trey Spruance has been for the past few years, he's been exploring the realms of jazz, surf rock and klezmer, with a hint of his metal roots, in Secret Chiefs 3. Which, for those not in the know, is more of a banner for seven of Spruance's projects, ranging from The Electromagnetic Azoth to the as yet unheard NT Fan. The band have been contacted by free jazz maestro John Zorn to play his 9th entry in Masada's Book Of Angels, titled Xaphan. The great man himself is actually nowhere to be found on the recording itself, instead taking an unheard role as composer and conductor. As you might expect from a work penned by Zorn, this is Secret Chiefs 3 at their most middle-eastern sounding, having an almost film-score like quality at times (of course, anyone who's heard Zorn's Filmworks series will know he's tackled the work of other film scorers before).

This is a somewhat difficult review for me to write, as I'm something of a newcomer to this kind of music. Still, the music has just about enough in common with rock and metal to make it an ideal starting point to Zorn's music (and it really is more of a John Zorn album, Secret Chiefs 3 merely acting as his conduits). Not that it's easy listening. The music is fairly loosely structured, generally consisting of several variations around the main musical theme of the song. I suppose fans of The Mars Volta's jammier bits will find a lot to like in the jazzy basslines and drum beats on display here, but on your first few listens (well, for many listens to come!) this album is impenetrable, a stranger save for say, those bursts of metal riffing on Bezriel or the odd carnivally bits on Barakiel (if you hadn't guessed from the title, each song is named after an angel from Judeo-Christianity). The only song that really sticks in my head is the hyper-joyous gypsy thrash of Omael, even to this day.

And that works to Xaphan's advantage, as it stays fresh for a very long time, it's snaking guitar and bass lines taking the listener on an unfathomable ride of twists and turns, albeit one that never strays too far from the song's base. I've listened to this record many times, and I'd still have a hard time telling you which parts are from which “song” (I use that term loosely, the word never seems right to me when talking about this sort of thing) .Those who value musicianship will find a lot to like here, as every instrument is expertly played. The bass is the personal standout to me, despite it being handled by different people at various points (Shahzad Ismaily, Estradasphere's Tim Smolens and Spruance himself all manage bass duties at different stages of the recording).

Though I'm still utterly baffled by Xaphan, I'm still oddly drawn to it. Maybe it's that it's something completely new to me, with musical devices and scales that are largely absent from 99% of my listening (it's nice to hear Arabian scales used in a way that doesn't feel like mere pastiche). Maybe it's because the band sound like they're having so much damn fun playing Zorn's compositions. I defy anyone not to grin when the horn blasts straight out of a 70s cop show make an appearance on Balberith. These are clearly people who play simply for the joy of playing music, and it's definitely infectious. At the end of the day, writing about Xaphan is like dancing about architecture, to use the old adage. Go out and hear it for yourself, and if you're anything like me, you'll be gagging to hear the rest of Zorn's Book Of Angels.

Killing Songs :
Impossible to choose, frankly.
James quoted 83 / 100
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