In his infamous book, The Denial of Death, Ernest Becker paints the whole of human civilisation as a defence mechanism against the awareness and acceptance of mortality. Looking at the history and present-day conundrums of the Occident, it seems that thanatophobia might indeed be the spiritus movens behind all of our struggles. A force so omnipresent and inevitable that it locks us into capsules of faux meaning and purpose which show no way of breaking from the status quo. But there are moments in life when the walls go down, when the defences weaken, and the plain and therefore terrifying truth of unknowing stands before us. In those instants, some choose to tremblingly retreat into comfortable delusions, while others take a step forward, bursting through into unexplored terrains.

Not long after Zu’s acclaimed and energetic record Carboniferous was released in 2009, the Roman trio went on a long hiatus whilst bassist Massimo Pupillo became one of those who decided to dive head first into a new existence. Relocating first to the Himalayas and then to Peru, he left his western guise behind to rebuild himself through cultures alien and distant from our own, yet seemingly in tune with humanity’s true nature. It was no surprise, then, that the band that reemerged in 2014 was no longer the Zu of old. Their two subsequent records, Goodnight, Civilization and Cortar Todo (“cut everything”), lost their playful aggressiveness and instead became burdened by a newly found gravitas and a growing sense of disintegration of the Western world.

Gone were the syncopated rhythms and intricate patterns while their sound took a hard turn, away from punk jazz sensibilities and towards metallic and oppressive repetitions emphasised by Gabe Serbian’s hard-hitting drumming. It was especially 2015’s Cortar Todo that became, in Pupillo’s own words, “a concept album about an unseen war, an inner war”. Flawed and torn, the music oscillated between styles and thoughts, as if a newly discovered idea was being forced into familiar, safe forms imagined during some earlier life. Relistening to the album today, there are signs, certain pupa, of sonic elements that would blossom into Zu’s first truly new record Jhator, a booming realisation of a reborn band.

In its essence, Jhator is a drastic transformation and dissolution of the power trio – even Luca T Mai abstains from his characteristic baritone saxophone. Instead, Mai, Pupillo, drummer Tomas Järmyr, and their numerous guests forge music that is a temperate and wistful ode to the religious practices and philosophies found in Tibetan and Egyptian mythologies. The first of the two twenty-minute long ambient pieces, ‘Jhator: A Sky Burial’, is a sonic manifestation, as the name suggests, of the different stages of Tibetan sky burial rituals.

The piece opens with subtle, inorganically organic sounds of gongs and mimetic birds trilling stochastically, encompassed by sumptuous tingles of a hurdy-gurdy and sinuous bass lines. The soundscape flows and ebbs with an impressionistic ease that feels almost improvised, shifting from a polished but melancholy ambient drone not unlike Kristoffer Lo’s Black Meat (featured here on tuba and flugabone) into scenes from Rafael Anton Irisarri’s cautiously optimistic A Fragile Geography. As the hurdy-gurdy varies its melody, the chirping intensifies and gains a permeating power to form words akin to those found in Lawrence English’s recent vocabulary.

The droning and buzzing are suddenly broken by a solitary synth that whimpers, lost, against a black backdrop of humming, mirroring chants, until it finally transitions into a saturation of warm textures. With the ritual approaching climax and the soul its point of transmogrification, nervous strings and bass throbs take over, followed by diffuse guitar chords and drums that outline the first semblances of rhythm. The culmination that follows is post-rockish in nature, with a distorted, otherworldly riff that closes the cut, but leaves the never ending apogee of life turning into death turning into life unresolved.

Michiyo Yagi’s beautiful koto, accompanied only by muted, spacious analogue synths, opens ‘The Dawning Moon of the Mind’. Based on Susan Brind Morrow’s book of the same title, it is a track that tries to convey the mystique of long forgotten Egyptian Pyramid Texts. Both a natural continuation and a stark shift to the maelstrom that came before it. And when shards of abrasive granular synth start interfering and destroying the koto’s fragile lines, it’s hard not to interpret it as a metaphor of the clash between modernity and tradition.

Scratchy and caustic, the song soon concocts an internal rhythm before echoes of bass and shadows of drums join in, thumping and smashing against guitar riffs. The noise plateaus just as the koto reappears, but this time it screams, knotted and glitched, and sings cyclically. In the end it’s an ethereal female voice that, humming a tune over sparse and pointy piano chords, hushes the spaced out electronic rays into oblivion.

Jhator is an earnest, nearly on the nose presentation of a universal set of beliefs and, by extension, musical ideas that arise from the intersection of the West and the East. As such, and in the context of the predominant epistemology of scientism, these projections of the musicians’ inner selves become facile targets for ridicule. In truth, they offer potential routes of liberation and understanding that can only be seen by lowering our guards. Expansive and thought-provoking, this is Zu’s most subversive and shocking music to date. Who knows where they’ll take us next.

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