The idea of saxophonist/composer John Zorn writing music to accompany a production about vampires has exciting implications. After all, it would seem logical that a man who has, over the past 40 years, helped expand the scope of sounds that can be considered music should be able to craft something truly mind-bending when dealing with such a spooky subject. Surprisingly, however, Zorn has produced a relatively tame score that translates into an accessible album when confronted with the task of writing music for a Polish stage production of Bram Stoker's Dracula.
Zorn's Nosferatu is a generally haunting album, but the composer punctuates the doom and gloom with moments of grandeur, aggression and even outright jazziness. Zorn brings together keyboardist Rob Burger, bassist Bill Laswell and percussionist Kevin Norton to augment his own alto sax and electronics playing on this soundtrack.
Norton's vibraphone playing is the primary textural element contributing to the album's eerie timbre. Many tracks consist of almost exclusively vibes and another keyboard instrument, usually acoustic or electric piano. These tracks range from the elegant and minimalistic "Mina," which has the album's only remotely uplifting melody, and the electronic drone of "Sinistera," to the chilling "Van Helsing" and "Renfield." The title track brings the spookiness level to a climax as Norton, still playing vibraphone, is accompanied only by bat-like squeaks, suspended cymbal swells and echoing human breath (performed by Zorn).
Zorn incorporates several groove-based tracks, releasing some of the tension created by all the ephemeral eeriness. "The Battle of Good and Evil" is essentially a death-metal vamp, with distorted keyboards replacing guitars. The tune is reminiscent of Naked City, as Zorn takes a squealing sax solo that clashes with Burger's wild keyboard playing, which sounds like an organ in distress at its calmest and the sound effects to a laser show at its most intense. "The Stalking" features a prominent dub/reggae beat supporting a slightly bluesy deconstruction of the creepy organ music typically associated with Dracula and some layered alto sax whimpering.
Despite the large amount of subtly abrasive material, lyricism is not absent from the album. Zorn plays his saxophone with an uncharacteristically conventional timbre on "Fatal Sunrise," creating angular bitter-sweet melodies over a desolate background of synth and free-flowing brushwork. Similarly, the slow-marching "Lucy" features a sophisticated-sounding melodic interplay between Burger's piano and Norton's bells and vibraphone that conveys a sense of resolute defiance.
Already Zorn's third release of 2012, Nosferatu doesn't present any surprises or musical innovation. Nevertheless, the ambient album flows well, and is a solid addition to Zorn's catalog of musical scores with a couple examples of great sax playing.
Desolate Landscape; Mina; The Battle of Good and Evil; Sinistera; Van Helsing; Fatal Sunrise ; Hypnosis; Lucy; Nosferatu; The Stalking; The Undead; Death Ship; Jonathan Harker; Vampires at Large; Renfield; Stalker Dub.
Rob Burger: piano, organ; Bill Laswell: bass; Kevin Norton: vibraphone, drums, orchestral Bells, tibetan Prayer Bowls; John Zorn: piano, alto Sax, fender Rhodes, electronics, breath.