This disc is supposed to hurt. Just look at the program: it starts with Crumb's Black Angels for electric string quartet, a work that is the aural equivalent of Coppola's Apocalypse Now, and ends with Shostakovich's String Quartet No. 8, a work that is either the aural equivalent of a monument to the victims of war and fascism written in the ruins of Dresden or the musical equivalent of a suicide note written before the composer joined the Communist Party. With the spooky and evocative performances of Thomas Tallis Spem in Alium, Istvan Marta's Doom. A Sigh, and Charles Ives' There They Are!, this disc is so painful it could be the soundtrack for an unmade Kubrick movie.
The question is, is this disc supposed to hurt so much? The Kronos Quartet is a harsh and aggressive ensemble with an angular approach to rhythm and structure and an overwhelming need to assert its individual and collective identity. It tears into the howling notes that begin Black Angels with the ferocity of The Furies and they don't take the pedal off the metal until the last gasp of the final Largo of the Eighth. Yet surely this is the intent of the music: Crumb's Black Angels is as violently anti-war as Shostakovich's Eighth is fatally anti-totalitarian, and any performance that doesn't hurt with the deep pain of righteous vehemence would hardly be worth hearing. Nonesuch's 1990 digital sound is so in your face that it's in your skull.