Proggy Bottom Boys : Zombi’s ‘Surface To Air’

I can’t remember when I first discovered Zombi. I think it was back in 2013. Back when things were simpler and the imminent destruction of existence as we know wasn’t just one North Korean missile launch or Donald Trump tweet away. This was really ground zero for me as far as my deep fall into the synth well. Somehow or another I happened upon their 2011 album Escape Velocity and never looked back(maybe it was the naked chick running on the cover.) That album introduced me to the one-two punch of Steve Moore and AJ Paterra. Moore is this maestro on the synth and bass, while Paterra could easily sit in for the now retired Neil Peart and give new life to Rush. While these guys have been given the label of “synthwave”, I’d have to completely disagree with that assessment. These guys are prog as f*ck. Space rock on the next level. Just listen to those drum fills and bass lines. Listen to those synths oscillating into some musical worm hole.

No disrespect to the synthwave crews, but Zombi are on another level musically.

Steve Moore and AJ Paterra write hard and lean musical epics. Listen to records like Shape Shift, Spirit Animal, or the aforementioned Escape Velocity. These two are pulling from bands like Rush just as much as they are Goblin. They’re also coming in from a horror/sci fi slant(they’re named after a Lucio Fulci classic after all…and they hail from Romero’s stomping grounds of Pittsburgh.) I recently picked up their 2006 album Surface To Air and I have to say it’s been eating up some serious platter time. It has all the things Zombi are known for: killer drums, aggressive bass lines, and plenty of mind-melting synths. You know, something for everyone.

It opens with the excellent “Challenger Deep”. It almost sounds like the opening of Genesis’ “The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway” before an almost “Subdivisions” by Rush vibe crashes in. The interplay between Moore’s synth and bass parts and Paterra’s killer drums pushes the track into the stratosphere. I imagine some bizarre space scene happening with this track. Like intergalactic forces battling it out over an ever growing black hole.

“Digitalis” starts out with an arpeggiated synth line that is accompanied by some serious Edgar Froese sonics. Let the Tangerine Dream vibes wash over you. If you’re at all familiar with Pinkish Black(their Brown Rainbow is a hell of an album), then you’ll recognize some of the synth tones here(both bands are on Relapse Records as well.) Steve Moore’s synth work here works in some great melodrama adding to the epic vibe.

The nine minute “Legacy” lays on a heavy robo-groove. Besides the amazing synth work, Moore and Paterra are one hell of a rhythm section. They lock in hard and lay on some airtight rhythms. The synth is the icing on the cake.

End side one.

When I’m listening to Zombi I’m reminded of all the great Rush instrumentals there have been over the years. With this album in particular I get a real Signals vibe. How everything works together to give both the feeling of virtuosity and of a feeling of emotional heft. There’s probably not much room for improvisation as I’m sure there’s some very specific programming in the synthesizer department. But it never comes across as stiff with these guys. It feels like there’s room to move around, despite those robo-grooves.

“Surface To Air” sounds like what would happen if Goblin and Tangerine Dream took on Rush’ “YYZ”. That may sound like a pretty out there comparison, but trust me. It’ll feel kind of weird at first, but just go with it.

Closing track “Night Rhythms” is over 18 minutes of proggy synth machismo. This one definitely hints at Moore’s later film score work. There’s a looming doom that hangs over the first few minutes of the track. It brings to mind both Goblin’s work for Dawn of the Dead and Fabio Frizzi’s score for City of the Living Dead. Soon enough the track kicks into gear and we’re treated to some serious prog rock tendencies courtesy of Mr. Paterra’s incredible drumming.

Zombi are a band that seem to get better each time out. This being only their second record there was a lot to live up to. I think they’ve done a good job of keeping an upward flow going, but if this record was released two years ago instead of 11 it would still be pretty damn impressive. If you like heavy synth music, or progressive rock, or late 70s-early 80s Rush(right after the heavy concept albums and before the 80s washed-out synth pop) then I don’t see any reason as to why you’re not buying up Zombi records left and right.

Surface To Air is a great place to start.

Red Fang : Only Ghosts

I’ve been digging into the Red Fang discography for the last few days, ever since I picked up their newest album Only Ghosts on the always trusty Relapse Records. Ired-fang have to say, with the exception of a few songs I’m not all that moved by these Portland stoner rockers. I’d heard the track “Cut It Short” and was impressed. I’d listened to a song here and there over the last few years and was never driven to dig deeper. I thought maybe this new album might be my gateway into the world of Red Fang. Not so much. The new album is the same as the older albums; you get big riffs, occasional Mastodon-like growling, High On Fire-lite doom, and a guitar sound that seems rooted in Foo Fighters’ One By One. None of these things are bad, really. I just prefer my metal with a little more bite, less bark.

Before the haters start hating, let me say that I think Red Fang are damn good band. There’s enough variety in their songs to satisfy the stoner, hesher, and closeted metal head in everybody. If you’re looking for a metal band to play in the family van on a trip to the store that’s not going to destroy impressionable young minds then I think you’d be safe with Red Fang. And these guys seem genuinely fun. Just watch any of their videos and you can see they don’t take themselves all that seriously. The only trouble with that is after awhile it’s hard to take them seriously at any level. Without that element of danger in metal, what’s the point?

Only Ghosts is the tightest album Red Fang has delivered thus far. Ross Robinson produced the band this time around and he gave their sound a nice, chromed-out sheen. There’s nary a spot on this record that isn’t ship shape and pristine, just the way Robinson likes his well-produced albums to be. “Cut It Short” is a fun chunk of pop metal that riff-wise sounds like one of Dave Grohl’s forays into the darker, heavier sides of his musical personality. “Shadows” is another big riff rocker that sounds rooted in Queens of the Stone Age’s Songs For the Deaf sound. “The Smell of the Sound” wallows in more sludgy doom territory, with both the melodic and growling vocals that go back and forth. “Living In Lye” is an angry headbanger that closes the record out with over six minutes of vocal belting and speed metal riffage.

The thing is, besides a sonic cleansing from Mr. Robinson we’re not that far off from Red Fang’s self-titled debut. That album’s “Prehistoric Dog” was a fun stoner rock anthem that sounded to be as influenced by “Detroit Rock City” as it was “Devilution”. I think it was also a more honest sound for Red Fang. There seems to be more metal posturing going on than actual metal mayhem on Only Ghosts. Maybe that’s intentional? I don’t know. The self-titled and Murder The Mountains found a decent balance between having a good time and melting faces with killer riffs. It was pretty much the same grind the whole way through, but it was a fun ride. Whales and Leeches seemed more of the same, and now with Only Ghosts the tread on those mags is starting to wear a bit too much.

Only Ghosts is a solid record to play as you annihilate a case of Red Stripes with some pals, or to listen to on the ride to Low Bob’s Discount Tobacco for a pack of Winstons. If you’re good with that, then party on, Wayne.

6.8 out of 10

 

 

Nothing : Tired Of Tomorrow

Nothing seem to float in this very unique musical cloud of both inescapable beauty and sharp ugliness. The sounds are both pastoral and urban. Domenic Palermo’snothing sometimes gritty upbringing in the streets of North Philly comes through in the sounds that come through the speakers. A youth soundtracked by both hardcore and shoegaze comes through on Nothing’s records. Even in adulthood the grit followed him through his own hardcore band Horror Show and trouble with the law. Despite the problems he found his way back to music. The debut album Guilty Of Everything was a mix of jagged metal and dreamy, floating guitar chords that brought to mind early UK shoegaze bands(My Bloody Valentine, Slowdive, and Chapterhouse come to mind), while still towing the line of hardcore and more extreme metal. What you got was sometimes brutal and sometimes beautiful, but always uniquely Nothing. Over the years the consensus was that shoegaze was this happy, trippy, and dreamy sound, but listen to some of those early records and that’s not quite the case. There was always an element of darkness and danger. An acid trip that was never quite enlightening in the eyes wide open sense, but more in the sense that the dark, ugly truth was exposed and you and you alone were privy to it. Nothing has tapped back into that darkness that was left back somewhere in the early 90s.

Nothing’s newest record, Tired Of Tomorrow, seems to find a middle ground where the dreamy aspects and the darker persuasions collide into a beautiful cloud of disenchantment. It feels inclined to give into the dark passenger and just let whatever happens happen. It’s beautifully heavy and dizzying in it’s hazy dreaminess.

The songs? There’s a lot to choose from, really. From the big anthem-ish opener of “Fever Queen” to the concise pop beauty of “The Dead Are Dumb” and the Cure-like dream pop splatter of “Vertigo Flowers”, the record opens like a vein spraying paisley designs on the wall. It seems the pitch black dread of Guilty Of Everything has been replaced with a sunnier disposition? Well, not really. “A.C.D.(Abcessive Compulsive Disorder)” finds some noisier guitar and that soulful lament back in Nick Palermo’s voice that weighed heavily on earlier fare. “Curse Of the Sun” is an overdriven crush of a track that brings back some of that “Bent Nail” vibe from Guilty Of Everything. “Eaten By Worms” sounds a touch of Nirvana’s “Heart-Shaped Box” during the quiet moments before trudging through sludgy riffs and sorrowful vocals in the chorus. Piano peppers the quieter moments towards the middle of the song giving the song a gothic feel. It’s an absolute highlight here. This song is like that girl you pined for in high school; she was quiet, dark, and uniquely beautiful, yet you never had the nerve to say anything to her. This song is that regret, in music form.

But still, this album has plenty of dreamy moments. “Nineteen Ninety Heaven” could be a slow dance song at a prom somewhere in the states. It sways just right, and has just the right amount of heart string pulling in it to get all those weird, sad feelings bubbling up inside. “Everyone Is Happy”, ironic title aside, is a beautifully constructed dream pop track, and it’s nearly one of their most beautiful tracks to date. Piano only adds to this tracks ethereal beauty. The title track closes out the album with a mournful piano and Palermo’s whispered hush of a voice. It’s very reminiscent of early NIN. “Something I Can Never Have” comes to mind. It’s one hell of a way to close an already stunning record.

Nothing’s Tired Of Tomorrow isn’t promising things are gonna get better for us. Maybe even the opposite. But it’s an amazing record, filled with all the stuff amazing records are filled with; angst, sadness, contempt, and the will to fight. And it’s a next level kind of album for a North Philly punk. They may be tired of tomorrow, but not too tired to care.

8.2 out of 10

 

 

Speedwolves and Razor Hooves

Matt Pike should be crowned the King Hesher of Earth. The shirtless, stoned(formerly), drunk(formerly), and long-haired guitarist/singer of High On Fire is a force of nature. First off the guy is a monster on the guitar. Sure there’s dudes that shred in metal bands, but Pike has an ease of playing that feels almost savant-like. He’s one of these guys that just connects to the guitar on some psychic level. To play and riff like he does with that kind of speed and dexterity, all the while singing about demons, wars, bloodshed, and whatever else he comes up in that THC-scorched brain of his is quite impressive. While his solos sound very thought out and planned, there’s a sense that he could just go off the rails at any minute. There’s that vibe of “Shit, let me just set my head on fire then play this solo and lets see what happens.”

I mean, he’s no stranger to the game.

Before he started High On Fire he was the guitarist in the band that pretty much defines stoner/doom rock as we know it. Sleep was the quintessential doom metal band, dark and slowly trudging through riffs steeped in Sabbath and hashish. C’mon, any band that pushes to put out the hour-long song/album called Dopesmoker, a concept album about the Weedian people has got to have some serious brass balls(or have brains completely steeped in some top shelf, high grade shit.) Pike comes across as a guy who didn’t really give a shit about what the suits at the label thought. So instead of messing with their vision the band breaks up and Pike starts over with drummer Des Kensel and bassist George Rice as High On Fire. High On Fire was like Sleep, but sped up. They were just as much influenced by Slayer as they were Sabbath. They’ve changed up bass players over the years, but Pike and Kensel have remained.

High On Fire have put out some seriously blistering records since the very beginning. For me, though, it all began with 2002s Surrounded By Thieves, their first record for Relapse Records. I’d listened to Pike and company before, but nothing really clicked(it was a weird time, I was only listening to Blonde Redhead and Thelonious Monk that week.) A pal hooked me up with Snakes For The Divine but nothing came of it. Then back in 2013 I read an article about Dopesmoker and thought “Hey, I need to look into this craziness”, so I bought a peculiarly colored(Indica) double vinyl from Southern Lord and proceeded to see the light(without the use of any narcotics.) My local record store had had a reissue copy of High On Fire’s Surrounded By Thieves in stock for some time. I relieved them of it and have never looked back.

FullSizeRender (83)I think there’s better High On Fire albums, for sure, but there’s something about Thieves that gets me coming back for repeated listens. Maybe the simplicity of it. It’s still a relatively sludgy affair(when you compare it to something like Blessed Black Wings or De Vermis Mysteriis), but it sounds like a band finding their footing. Their debut, The Art Of Self Defense, still sounded like a band looking for their sound. Still dealing with “Sleep” paralysis, they hadn’t found that HOF groove. Surrounded By Thieves is that spot where they were definitely past Sleep’s shadow and had found a new thing.

“Eyes and Teeth” slowly swells like air pushing through your ears before exploding in a sea of crushing riffs and precision attack drumming. Matt Pike’s vocals are a mix of singing and war tomes. You feel like there’s a song there, but you also feel like Pike is preaching a sermon of doom and damnation at the same time. As good as Pike is, though, Des Kensel is just as important as the man himself. Kensel is one of the best metal drummers working today. He takes the throne from former Slayer drummer Dave Lombardo as far as I’m concerned. The guy is a drumming beast. “Hung, Drawn, and Quartered” proves Kensel’s ability to get the ball rolling with tribal beatings opening the song before a double kick drum and Matt Pike’s chugging riffage break through the mix to pummel you to a bloody pulp. “Speedwolf” sounds like a throwback to early 80s British metal before that all important meaty Pike guitar sound breaks the glass and it’s like Venom were swallowed by Electric Wizard. “The Yeti” is sort of the centerpiece track, with a running time at just over 7 minutes. Matt Pike sounds a bit like Lemmy as he sings about the mythical snow creature as the music trudges along what feels like an ominous snow path somewhere in the Himalayas. “Thraft of Caanan” has a bit of the Dopesmoker vibe, but with a little more groove thrown in. There’s even more of a singing thing happening as opposed to the growling here. The album closes out with the one-two punch of title track “Surrounded By Thieves” and the scorched earth “Razor Hoof”. There’s really no time to stop and breathe. You’re running for your life as soon as the needle is dropped.

FullSizeRender (84)Another thing that I love about High On Fire in general is their commitment to the vibe. When you look at a High On Fire album cover you’re seeing what’s buried within the grooves of that vinyl. If you see some cat with glowing red eyes carrying a battle axe and wearing a helmet with horns under fire-glow skies and a looming army behind him you know what you’re gonna be treated to sound-wise. This isn’t Molly Hatchet’s Flirtin’ With Disaster. You know, the one with the album cover with the muscle bound Scandinavian carrying a bloodied axe and some kind of serpent on the ground next to him. You expect it to be some heavy shit, but it’s really just southern rock. And half ass southern rock at that. Or that Grim Reaper album See You In Hell. All death and doom on that album cover, but surprise, inside is just some really lousy metal. No, High On Fire are as advertised. All doom, darkness, blood spilling, and as metal as they come.

High On Fire are on another level altogether when it comes to metal music. As heavy as Surrounded By Thieves, as well as their other records are, the heaviness seems to transcend onto some other plain. It almost becomes meditative. I’ve found that to be true of a lot of metal records as of late, both old and new. I mean, I don’t listen to Slayer because I dig lyrics about serial killers and eternal damnation(though all of that is tempting.) No, their records are a swirl of fury and speed that once you dig in it’s like you’ve entered the eye of a hurricane. The energy is addictive, for sure. But what’s even more addictive is melting into the background of the fury. Matt Pike and High On Fire make a similar kind of transcendental fury. I don’t know if it’s the mid-range their sound sits in or what, but I can get lost in records like Thieves, Blessed Black Wings, Death Is The Communion, and De Vermis Mysteriis. Not in a scary, serial killer kind of way, but the way I get lost in Tangerine Dream, Kraftwerk, and other heavy synth records. I could just be weird(I know I am, in fact), but I find something calming in the heavy riffage and fantastical imagery that High On Fire offer up.

Surrounded By Thieves is a good place to start the HoF journey, if you’re looking for an in.