Home > Album Reviews, New Sounds > ALBUM REVIEW: Xaphan, Book of Angels Vol. 9 ~ The Secret Chiefs 3 play Masada Book Two

ALBUM REVIEW: Xaphan, Book of Angels Vol. 9 ~ The Secret Chiefs 3 play Masada Book Two

17th May 08 (Sat) Leave a comment Go to comments

Got this album in the mail the other day… I’ve four times through it, and since I imagine it will hold up fairly well as far as albums go this year, it deserves the ol’ track-by-track analysis…

Xaphan, Book of Angels Volume 9
The Secret Chiefs 3 play Masada Book Two

Secret Chiefs 3 - Xaphan

Masada Book Two – Background: John Zorn had a fantastic jazz-klez quartet called Masada. It was John Zorn on alto sax, Dave Douglas on trumpet, Greg Cohen on bass, and Joey Baron on drums (sometimes Kenny Wollesen of the Sex Mob filled in on drums). They recorded 10+ studio albums in the mid-1990s, and they played live consistently up until March 2007. They may play a one-off in the future, but their Lincoln Center shows last spring were their final bow, as it were. I saw it, yay! The initial 10 studio albums by Masada are hardish to find (Japanese import label DIW), but they have many live and previously unreleased stuff on John’s own Tzadik Records, like Sanhedrin (below):

Masada - Sanhedrin

Anyway, sometime in the early 2000s, John Zorn started several splinter Masada or Masada-esque groups (Electric Masada, Masada String Trio, Bar Kokhba Sextet). He also wrote upwards of 300 additional Masada tunes that were not to go into acoustic Masada repertoire, but rather go into the “Masada Book Two. ” Different artists get these tunes (in the form of melody sheets of about 16 bars of music), and they arrange and record their version of John Zorn’s Masada Book Two tunes. Favorites in the past have been Marc Ribot, Koby Israelite, Cracow Klezmer Band, Bar Kokhba Sextet, et cetera…

Xaphan Personnel: Trey Spruance: guitars, organs, percussion, synths, autoharp, piano, bass; Timb Harris: violin, trumpet; Jason Schimmel: guitar; Anonymous 13: voice, viola; Rich Doucette: sarangi; Jai Young Kim: B3 organ; Shahzad Ismaily: bass; Ches Smith: drums, congas; with special guests Adam Stacey: clavinet; Monica Schley: harp; and Tim Smolens: cello, upright bass. ie- people from the latest incarnations of Secret Chiefs 3, Estradasphere, Mr. Bungle, Marc Ribot’s Ceramic Dog, Carla Kihlstedt’s 2 Foot Yard, yadda yadda…

Trey SpruanceTimb HarrisTrey Spruance
photo credits: Peter Gannushkin / Theremin Noise Club / Jae

The Xaphan Songs: (all written by John Zorn & arranged by Trey Spruance)

  1. Sheburiel ~ Nice surf/exotica about 30 seconds in, which transitions into a delightful string melody with surf guitar reminiscent of something from the Electric Masada catalog. Overall, this is quite a schizophrenic song, but nice textures… it’s a prelude for what’s to come in the rest of the record.
  2. Akramachamarei ~ Very much a spaghetti-western-meets-middle-east vibe on this track. I dig it. The title sounds like an interesting mixed drink (something along the lines of okra-infused vodka bloody mary with a sprig of mâche instead of celery). Oh, and if you don’t know what mâche is, well, it’s a delightfully nutty leaf in the lettuce family. So, yeah, spaghetti-western-meets-middle-eastern bloody mary concoctions all around!! And any band naming themselves Okra-infused Vodka, you owe me royalties. OK, back to the music…
  3. Shoel ~ Conga intro… keys, dub beats, and fuzz-guitar. Nice. Like at least 2-days of stubble on the guitars. Back into clean spag-west guitar… yeah, know, pretty soon, I’m running out of descriptions and adjectives beyond “cool,” “neato,” and “nice tom work, Ches.” I’m not a musician; so that’s the best you get, fools. This is one of my favorite tracks so far.
  4. Barakiel ~ Slowish, clean guitar entry with some slide, harp, and genteel vocals… moving into a bouncier spag-west guitar, but still with ethereal strings and piano.
  5. Bezriel ~ Oooo… Trey’s bringing the rock into it. Good interplay between the calm-before-the-storm viola and/or violin with the guitar chunk and vocal haunts. The last half of the track features some more strings and less of the chunk (oh, wait, I lied… it ends with the chunk). :) Another one of my favorite tracks.
  6. Kemuel ~ Bungle-y circus organ into swirling drum-guitar-vocal passage into a dirty string solo.
  7. Labbiel ~ Interesting time signature interplay between the guitars and drums.
  8. Asron ~ Aw geez, I just lost the game. I zoned out to the great music and forgot to write about it. Bad reviewer, bad reviewer. Anyway, back to the music. Nice violin and guitars to end it.
  9. Balberith ~ Starts with a great melodic bass line with some fuzz/scratch guitar. Ah, the trumpet finally kicks in. Nice stuff, Timb. This could fit on Zorn’s The Dreamers or Electric Masada nicely. That’s a compliment. :) Another one of my favs on this record.
  10. Omael ~ Add some xylophone, and I’d say the intro to this fits into a Zappa catalog. :) This is a faster-paced song… for the SC3 bellydancer contingent, don’t pick this. Your legs might fall off. This one has some great percussion and more trumpet. I’m getting lost in the sounds, but I’m digging it.
  11. Hamaya ~ Clean exotica guitar intro, organ, vocal chants (something about tostadas?). Oh, a seemingly (to me) “The Exile” or “Book T: Exodus” strings-n-guitars moment about 1 minute in… nice. Nice melty fade that sucks me back into… g-to-the-d, why is it 84 degrees in my house!? Sometimes I hate renting a house in Oregon that does have A/C. Anyway, a great end to a great album.

I recommend you take some listens on MySpace, Amazon, and iTunes (when they get it)… and support good music if you like what you hear. It’s currently available at Web of Mimicry, Downtown Music Gallery, and Amazon (to name a few). I don’t do the track-by-track treatment on just any record… this is a special record.

Any musical review faux pas above? Eh, I’m not a musician. My ears my have defied me brain, matey. For Secret Chiefs 3 fans, I suppose this more relates to a Ur / Ishraqiyun / Forms / Traditionalists musical offering? I dunno which one moreso than the others. Any thoughts from you WoM boardies?

Fav tracks: Shoel (#3), Bezriel (#5), Balberith (#9), and Hamaya (#11).

Recommended if you like: world music, middle eastern music, progressive music with a bellydance beat, ADHD prescriptions, Secret Chiefs 3, Estradasphere, Mr. Bungle, John Zorn, et al… it’s very much a Secret Chiefs 3 record, but probably one of their more “accessible” ones (as well as being an accessible John Zorn-penned album). User friendly, middle-eastern rock-romp through a mad alchemist’s mind (Trey is a brilliant musician, IMO). This is my favorite in John Zorn’s Masada Book Two series, and that’s saying a lot (I love all 10 of the series thus far).

The Appropriate Linkage:

~Dan – np: Susie IbarraDrum Sketches
Susie Ibarra

The Masada Book Two Series (to date):



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  1. schlep
    18th May 08 (Sun) at 2:35 pm

    Hey, that’s a very helpful and descriptive review, musician or not!
    I’m just finally hearing Xaphan this weekend – and it is A LOT to take in. I was skeptical at first – no Eyvind Kang, and I didn’t like a lot of Book of Horizons – but this is sounding great.

  2. 18th May 08 (Sun) at 3:09 pm

    Great review! I’ll be searching this one out.

  3. 18th May 08 (Sun) at 4:23 pm

    Yeah, Eyvind Kang is a great addition to SC3 (or any band). I’ll get to see Eyvind in three weeks with Bill Frisell at the Shedd in Eugene, OR. First time seeing both of them (unless for some reason Eyvind was on the Mr Bungle California tour… I don’t know if he was or not).

    Regardless, Timb Harris (from Estradasphere) and Anonymous 13 do great jobs holding down the strings without Eyvind in the picture.

    I’m glad the review was helpful for you both…

    ~Dan

  4. 18th May 08 (Sun) at 5:17 pm

    Thanks for the overview Dan and cheers for dropping the link by the Aus Grind site too.

    Reading about the rest of the Masada Book Two series has got me intrigued – which others would you recommend? I really need countless hours to familarise myself with all of Zorn’s music – at the moment it doesnt really extend too far past past Naked City.

  5. 18th May 08 (Sun) at 5:35 pm

    My “Fave 5” of the Masada Book Two are:
    Xaphan (SC3)
    Lucifer (Bar Kokhba)
    Orobas (Koby Israelite)
    Asmodeus (Marc Ribot)
    Azazel (Masada String Trio)

    But, honestly, they’re all good. If you’re coming at Zorn from a Naked City angle, your best bet is the Marc Ribot one (Asmodeus). Many of the other ones are more traditional… jazz, chamber, or klezmer.

    As far as other Zorn, I too got into him through Naked City and some of the Mike Patton stuff. I quickly started loving him once I got into the Masada stuff. The original “acoustic” Masada quartet put out a great string of great records.

    ~Dan

  1. 18th Jun 08 (Wed) at 11:53 am
  2. 27th Nov 08 (Thu) at 3:06 am

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