Recorded and mixed at Greenpoint Studio, Brooklyn, New York.
A trio consisting of alto saxophonist John Zorn, bassist Bill Laswell,and drummer Mick Harris, Painkiller was a novel blend of free improv, jazz, dub, and death metal. Although the lineup occasionally expanded to include the uniquely gifted Japanese vocalist Yamantaka Eye and other guests, Execution Ground is an investigation of the power and range of the core trio. The first disc of this inventive and unsettling two-disc set features three long improvisations that show off the band's dub influence. The second disc, subtitled "Ambient Dub," is a rethinking/remix of the third and first improvs on the first disc. Overall less thrashy than some Painkiller excursions, the improvisations here are striking for their greater sonic space without sacrificing any of the heaviness. At times, the band rests, making way for ominous breathing and distant sustained screams, which recur throughout. The transitions from silence to groove to noise and back are relentless and dramatic. Harris proves to be an astonishingly inventive drummer, consistently varying the foundation in surprising ways. Laswell's tone varies from the brightness of flanged round-wound strings scraping the frets to a clean, menacing low-frequency pulse, and sticks mostly to elemental, non-flashy lines that keep the mood deep and dark. Zorn's playing is excellent here, varying between extremely overblown piercing tones (perhaps the best way of being heard over such a rhythm section) and nearly conventional jazzy lines that confidently ride atop the din. An occasional microtonal chorus effect warps his playing, and the effect is so disturbing that it's surprising he soon abandoned this technique.
This is the only good Painkiller album I've heard. In the Collected Works, it's spread out over two discs. The first disc is the original album - three tracks of screaming improvised heavy metal blended with ambient interludes. The second disc is a remix of the first - two tracks that bury the screeching under a flood of eerie ambient music.
What sets Execution Ground apart from Guts of a Virgin and Buried Secrets? The interludes of ambient hum. It sounds like Bill Laswell took one of the previous albums and spread it out, smearing the hardcore noise against a backdrop of drones and echoes. The music fades in and out, leaving you off-balance. It feels improvised and carefully composed at the same time.
Every time I hear it, I think about Miles Davis' Bitches Brew. That album isn't hardcore like this, but it has the same structure. My guess is that Laswell or Oz Fritz did the same thing Davis' longtime producer, Teo Macero, did - he took the free-jazz recordings and arranged them in the control room for maximum effect. By breaking the tracks apart, looping, and layering, he created a masterpiece of abstract jazz. Execution Ground accomplishes the same effect, but it gets to the point quicker.
The second disc is best described as ambient heavy metal. It sounds like Halloween music. On this disc, the remixing has turned the music into sound effects. But this disc feels more "free" than the original. The distant cries of Zorn's saxophone and the low rumble of the bass and drums seem to play off of each other by instinct. It's an impressive album, something I've never heard before.
All Music Guide