Before his two piano trio recordings for Tzadik, multi-instrumentalist, composer, and conceptualist Jamie Saft was well known for his wide-ranging musical vision on that label and others, where he has quite liberally utilized hard dub, heavy metal, and electronic music in contexts that sometimes combined these genres with vanguard jazz. On his fifth offering for John Zorn's imprint, Saft returns to one of his earliest loves on Black Shabbis, part of the imprint's Radical Jewish Culture Series. Saft has composed a series of visceral, musically challenging songs about anti-Semitism in history and popular culture with at least one meditation ("Army Girl") on the tolerance Semetic peoples must practice toward one another in this dangerous time. But, it seems, Saft seems to be saying -- quite rightly -- that every era has been dangerous for Jews. Saft plays guitars, bass, organs, Mellotron, and synthesizer, and gets help from bassist Trevor Dunn and drummer Mike Pride on five tracks with Dmitriy Shnaydman and Bobby Previte on skins on two others. Vanessa Saft and Mr. Dorgon (Gordon Knauer) offer vocals on a couple of cuts as well. To say that Saft "gets" metal would be an absurdity. There is no irony on this set, intentional or otherwise: it is as much a part of his musical identity as jazz and his formal improv studies with Joe Maneri. The set begins with the title cut, a soft "(Ghost) Riders in the Sky"- style melody that's actually a resonant take on a Jewish folk song, with lots of reverbed guitars and rubbery basslines and some organ and synth painting a warm dubby atmosphere.
The album roars to life with "Blood," a death metal offering that reflects the libelous -- and false -- history of the Jews as the killers of young boys to be used in the sacred Passover ritual. With its guttural, growling vocals, it would be great to be able to hear the lyrics as well as read Saft's summation of the track in the liner booklet. The guitars here are simply in the red; the interplay between Dunn and Pride is stunning. The overdrive continues on "Serpent Seed," an indictment of the anti-Semitism of Pastor Arnold Murray. The track is slow, crunchy bluesed-out metal. One power riff slowly articulates itself with a near funk backbeat to drive home its message as a bevy of keyboards speak from the fabric of the track. The blues makes a return appearance on "Army Girl," with a propulsive organ sharing the space with the guitars in the middle and layers of echo chamber demonic-sounding vocals adding weight and depth. "Remember," the second from last cut on the set, is the most disturbing thing here. An exhortation that to forget the pogroms, the Holocaust, and other violence and indignities against the Jewish people would be a crime, it is doom metal drenched in feedback, drone, and long distorted sounds and goes on for over 13 minutes. Black Shabbis is not for everybody, not even some Saft fans necessarily, but it is a powerful, excellent work that uses the metal genre well -- expertly even -- and will convince headbangers of its essential importance as one of the voices out there that stands tall and defiant in the face of much of the anti-Semitism that is promoted by some black and death metal bands. For everyone else, it is an angry howl of both pain and resistance whose anger is carried beautifully as the artist's ultimate weapon: his imagination and creativity to provoke, to give pause and reflection.