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.

The Treehouse

A few months back I grabbed the soundtrack to a Belgian horror film called Cub. Not because I was particularly interested in the film(though I do plan on seeing it at some point), but because it was another film soundtrack by Zombi keyboardist/bassist Steve Moore. Moore has been making horror/progressive/futurist music with drummer Anthony Paterra for well over ten years now, melting minds with albums like Surface To Air, Escape Velocity, and most recently 2015s Shape Shift. I’d been listening to Zombi here and there over the years but took the plunge back in 2013 with their album Escape Velocity. This was amid one of my “heavy synth” phases(I’ve had several more since then), so that album hit all the right notes for me. It was like every song was this cool variation of Rush’ “YYZ” or any number of that Canadian trios plethora of instrumental moments over the years. But there was a darker element brought to Zombi’s sound that most other progressive bands never reach. These guys were influenced by the macabre and gothic and it came through in their music.

IMG_1893So last year I’d heard about a movie called The Guest. It was a thriller about a man that shows up at the front door of a grieving family saying he was a good friend of their sons who’d died overseas in the war. The stranger integrates himself into the family’s lives, and of course he’s not what he seems. I wrote about it here. The score was written and performed by none other than Steve Moore, and when I saw it come up for sale through those cool folks at Mondo/Death Waltz I snagged it up. Enter the Belgian flick Cub. It’s about a group of cub scouts that go out into the woods to camp. One of the scouts is a boy that is sort of the odd man out. Picked on and a bit of a loner he finds out the troop is in imminent danger and warns the bunch who mock him and think he’s just got an overactive imagination. Turns out he’s right, as the boys are being hunted by a young feral boy and his poacher father. This film was scored by Steve Moore as well, and if the flick is anything like the soundtrack it’s gotta be pretty good.

So how does it sound? Well it’s filled with all the building cues, ominous swells, and tribal drums that make for an engaging listen. There’s some Carpenter-esque moments, as well as harsher soundscapes like “The Truck” and the 11-minute “The Hunt”. “The Treehouse” feels like a loop of melancholy and oncoming dread. Moore’s hallmark synth wisps and tribal rhythms are present and accounted for here, but done so in a very meticulous narrative. Just like with his The Guest score, Cub does feel like it’s telling a story but it also feels very natural as a standalone record. You can put it on and let it fill the background as you’re cooking dinner, reading a book, or contemplating world domination without it getting in the way of your thought process. Bonus!

FullSizeRender (90)I’ve talked about many(many, many) soundtracks on these pages before, and for the most part I’ve enjoyed them all. Steve Moore seems to have tapped into a great thing here: scoring. He’s pretty much built for this kind of musical outlet. With Zombi, Moore and Paterra have been making songs inspired by films(and their subsequent scores) all along. Their love of the darker side of things as well as bands like Rush, Goblin, and horror films have permeated their music and creative process. It only seems natural for Steve Moore to delve into the world of film scoring.

With The Guest and now Cub he seems to only be getting better each time out.

 

No One Will Ever Love You

A couple of months ago I came across this great 12″ split by Antoni Maoivvi and a project called Slasher Film Festival Strategy. My friend John at Karma Records of Warsaw told me on Black Friday that he had this split arriving in the afternoon and that he thought I’d really dig it. I had heard of this split as Death Waltz Recording Company had issued it not long before that and it had sold out quickly. Figured I better grab this thing while I could. Very happy I did as it’s a great three-song collection of moody, dark synth stuff. This led me to looking into Slasher Film Festival Strategy.

Turns out it’s really just one guy. A dude from South Carolina named Christopher Ashley. Ashley was in hardcore bands in the early and mid-90s. The biggest was Murder Weapons, which released a single and recorded a full-length that never saw an official release. He seemed to not only enjoy hardcore and punk, but was a big fan of horror films in the 80s and the soundtracks that accompanied them. Ashley had some beat up synths and a 4-track cassette recorder and began making rough-around-the-edges synth music in-between Murder Weapons practices and over the years amassed quite a collection of self-released albums, a good portion on cassette tape. He’s been putting this horror soundtrack-inspired music out for nearly 20 years, well before the great heavy synth boom began just a few years ago.

FullSizeRender (19)I was pretty shocked by this, and at first when I read the project had been putting out music since 1998 I thought it was just a rue in order to build some kind of mystique around the music. Well I was wrong, as I heard from the man himself that he’s been indeed making music as Slasher Film Festival Strategy since 1998(I’ve sent Mr. Ashley some questions for a very in-depth Q&A. Hopefully that will come to light very soon.) I’ve since immersed myself in the world of SFFS, and it’s been an exciting and seedy journey.

Heading over to Foreign Sounds Bandcamp page you’ll find plenty of dark and moody synth tunes to indulge in. What? What is Foreign Sounds? Oh, well it’s the record label Ashley started to self-release his material, as well as other artists he finds interesting. Over there you can check out Slasher Film Festival Strategy’s Early Works 1998-2003. It’s some seriously lo-fi, gritty synth music that you’d swear was in some exploitative horror film from 1981. There’s tape hiss, sudden starts and stops, and a general feel of amateurish glee. That feeling of someone experimenting for the first time with a new art and they’re loving it. You can hear a definite progression from amateur to novice to someone that is starting to know what the hell they’re doing. You can even pick up a copy of this thing on cassette. That way you can listen to it once then hide it in the couch and forget about it for years so when you get rid of the couch the next owner can find it hidden while cleaning it one day. They can put it in their cassette player and wonder what the hell they just found(this scenario relies completely on the idea that future couch owner actually has a cassette player.)

There’s lots of good stuff to listen to from SFFS, but right now I’m currently entranced with his 2014 release Wet Leather. It’s a beautiful homage to those gritty andIMG_1341 grainy exploitative slasher flicks of the late 70s and early 80s. Zombi-ish arpeggiated synth lines pushed along by antiquated drum machines, moody drones and mournful keys all encompass the world of Wet Leather. All the track titles refer to some made up scene or set piece. “Forced Entry”, “The Stalker”, “Shadow Lurker”, “Reflection of the Blade”, and “The Hunt” all work to build some made up narrative of some lost slasher film that never really existed. In this way Ashley is not only just making a synth record, but something more. Something to help fuel the dark imagination in all of us(well definitely me, anyways.)

The music is seedy, dark, and paints a picture of dank, dingy alleyways. City streets dimly lit with danger around every corner permeate this album. Late night drives into unknown and dangerous territory. This is music Abel Ferrara would surely have loved in some of his early 80s films. There are gentler moments, but even they have an air of danger lurking in them. John Carpenter is definitely informing the music a bit here, as is Goblin, Zombi, and even Boards of Canada. It’s a great collection of music.

I recently acquired a copy of Wet Leather in red and black swirl vinyl and it sounds great. The album sleeve was designed by Ashley himself and it truly looks like the movie poster to some lost horror film. It’s done up perfectly, really. For the vinyl collectors out there this is an artifact you must have in your collection.

Besides the Early Works collection, you can also check out Crimson Throne, a concept album written as a score for a sci fi film Christopher Ashley had hanging around in his head. That too is a great album, as is Psychic Shield. Psychic Shield is the newest SFFS album and will be getting a vinyl released on Death Waltz Originals very soon.

So go put on that old leather jacket, a ski mask, and some dirty gloves and enjoy some Slasher Film Festival Strategy. Just forewarn the wife and kids what you’re doing. To be on the safe side, of course.

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Afterthought Part One : Zombi’s ‘Shape Shift’

Every year after completing my list of favorite albums I usually have that moment of “Damn! How could I forget that album?”, and it usually occurs about five seconds after I hit “Publish” on said favorites list. So for the next few days I’ll post about those records I forgot to give ample love to. This tradition continues once again this year. There were four or five albums that didn’t make the list that despite that I really did like them. One or two were because I hadn’t been able to spend enough time with them in order to feature them. Others were because simply they got lost in the mix of all the albums I’ve bought and spun this year.

Funny thing about this year, I didn’t rank the albums on my year end list. At first I thought it was just out of laziness on my part, but then I began thinking about it and I think more than than anything it’s because I never got completely obsessed over any album in particular. Maybe I’m mellowing as I get older, or maybe it’s that I just don’t care. No, I do care. I’m as big a music guy as I’ve ever been. I think though that nowadays I’m much more open to soaking in as much music as possible. That may mean that I don’t get completely lost in just a handful of albums all year. The last few years there have been two or three albums each year that I kept going back to, where as this year it felt like I was jumping around to several albums and really enjoying them all.

Maybe it’s that this was the year of soundtracks for me.

I don’t know. I loved the music I discovered this year, ranked or not. Now, onto something completely different.

Zombi’s Shape Shift feels like the most straight ahead rock album Zombi has put out, and it’s the one I’ve put the most listening time into as far as their discography goes. Their earlier albums, like Surface To Air and the Zombi Anthology leaned pretty heavy on the atmospheric synth drones which I love. But, I don’t think those showcased the power between Steve Moore and AE Paterra synth/drum interplay like Escape Velocity and Shape Shift do. With Moore working on movie scores and Paterra’s side project Majeure, those feel like outlets for the spacier, atmospheric sides of their musical worlds. That left Zombi to be heavier in the rhythm and groove department. Shape Shift has rhythm and groove to spare. But there’s still plenty of atmosphere, too. Side D is dedicated to the epic space case “Siberia II”, an almost 15 minute slow burner that slinks and sways like a cloud of deep space madness looming overhead. But tracks like “Pillars Of The Dawn”, “Mission Creep”, and the mini-epic “Interstellar Package” sound like Rush’s Moving Pictures reimagined by a band of replicants. The Moog-y sounding “whaaaaas” and “swooooohs” burn through the air at every turn. Paterra sounds like Neil Peart had Peart been more into Tony Williams instead of Buddy Rich. And besides the impeccable synth work, Moore plays some pretty incredible bass lines(Geddy would be proud…or maybe he is?)

So, if I loved this album so much why didn’t it get a paragraph or two? Man, because I’m an idiot I guess. Shape Shift hit my turntable in October and in the midst of busy times here at the Hubner ranch. It was unceremoniously enjoyed a couple of times then forgotten about. I think it was hidden in the shadows of Steve Moore’s film scores he put out this year that I did in fact give a few words of praise to. But still, that’s no excuse. I’m making amends here with Zombi and Shape Shift.  I mean, how could I not give words of praise and love to an album with song titles like “Diffraction Zone”, Toroidal Vorticles”, and “Metaverse”?? For Christ’s sake, “Toroidal Vorticles”, people! And “Diffraction Zone” feels like the opening music to some lost Cannon Video 80s sci fi classic. It’s about perfect. Golan-Globus would have died for this music to don a trailer of theirs.

I hope there’s more to come from Zombi. I suppose if Shape Shift was it from them it would be a hell of an album to end things on. I’m just hoping that’s not the case. I think Zombi have a lot more to give us. And I have more money to give them.

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Zombi : Shape Shift

Listening to the heavy synth band Zombi is like zoning out to the opening credits of some imaginary sci fi or horror film. As you listen to the synth strings well up andzombi-shapeshift overpower the mix, and the Neil Peart-like precision of the drums you can almost picture some imaginary scene of intense space flight. Or in other parts you can see an eerie, foreboding street light illuminating the way to some blood-soaked finale for a group of  horny coeds.

What I’m trying to say here is that Zombi’s music is very specific. It pulls from a very particular emotional pool. Keyboardist/bassist Steve Moore and ace drummer Anthony Paterra were obviously very much influenced by 70’s and 80’s horror films and the soundtracks that scored them(they named the band after George A. Romero’s 1978 classic Dawn of the Dead. ‘Zombi’ was the name given to it for it’s Italian release.) Goblin, John Carpenter scores, as well as the baroque leanings of composers like Fabio Frizzi and Walter Rizzati echo in the progressive tendencies of Zombi’s music. Since 2004 Zombi have put out five albums, their newest is the excellent Shape Shift. A double album filled with dark synth landscapes, progressive drumming, and an overall feel of an epic score to the best sci fi masterpiece you’ll probably never see.

If heavy synth music isn’t your thing, then you may want to turn around right now. In fact, I’m not even sure why you’re still reading this. When you step into Zombi’s musical world you should know what to expect. “Pillars of the Dawn” is the opening salvo that greets you at Club Zombi, and it’s killer. Heavy groove permeates the track and Paterra lays down some killer rhythm leaving Steve Moore open to fill the nooks and crannies with an oscillating synthesizer pulse. If in the wrong hands, heavy synth can fall into the category of “cheesy” very quickly. That’s never been a problem for Moore and Paterra as they also pull just as much from progressive rock as they do horror soundtracks. “Total Breakthrough” has the feel of Rush’s “Subdivisions” mixed with a touch of The Fixx before the track takes off into the outer rims of the universe. “Mission Creep” keeps the drum ‘n bass show going while an arpeggiated synth rolls along effortlessly. This would be playing in the arcade as some kid is beating the hi-score on some mysterious video game. As he wins he gets sucked into the machine and has to fight his way back through the game, this time for real. At least that’s what I see.

I think one of the biggest strong suits that Zombi possess is their ability to pull you out of the everyday and throw you in some other headspace. The cinematic qualities of their music is undeniable. The fact that Steve Moore has made a name for himself as a film composer helps that. His scores for The Guest and Cub are filled with these amazing moments of depth and mood creation. Those attributes bleed well over into what he does in Zombi. A song like “Interstellar Package” really puts you on some dark and desolate spacecraft in the middle of the cosmos. Paterra brings the mood up when needed and pulls back at just the right moment. It’s a stunning 8-minute trip through the blackness of space. Shape Shift is filled with these moments from the very beginning, and closing track “Siberia II” ends this spaced-out trip with over 14 minutes of dark synth slow burn. It’s a song that builds on itself slowly, never changing motifs or even tempo. It reminded me of the excellent “1966 – Let The New Age Of Enlightenment Begin” off of Sinoia Caves’ Beyond The Black Rainbow S/T from last year. It’s menacing and hypnotic, just how we like it.

Shape Shift is the most prolific album by Zombi yet. It’s a mix of the epic and grand, as well as the harder edged progressive they’ve done in the past. This is also their most accessible album to date. If you’ve thought about delving into the world of Zombi, Shape Shift is a great place to start.

8.7 out of 10

 

 

Jakob Skott :: Taurus Rising

taurusWay back in March of this year, amongst one of the coldest and harshest Midwestern winters in recent memory I happened across this guy named Jakob Skott. He’s the co-founder and drummer of the Danish psych band Causa Sui. Not only that, but he’s the co-founder of El Paraiso Records, the record company that puts Causa Sui’s albums. Not only that, but the guy puts out amazing synth-driven, neo-futuristic records under his own name. Now, back to that harsh, cold Midwestern March. Skott released his second solo record called Amor Fati. It’s a buzzing, and frequently exhilarating listening experience filled with both hazy and jagged analog synth mixed with a cocktail of Keith Moon and Tony Williams drum-strutting. It’s an all instrumental album that seamlessly takes us on a post-apocalyptic musical journey. It’s one of the best albums of the year. Keeping his musical mojo going, Skott returned to the studio back in the summer and recorded yet another stunner of a record called Taurus Rising. While not the musical journey its predecessor was, Taurus Rising makes up for lack of narrative with serious groove and feel.

“Escape From The Keep” starts with bubbling synth, creating a tension that comes to fruition when Skott busts open the speakers with his constantly moving groove on the drums. It’s a different sound than we heard on Amor Fati. While that album had plenty of rhythm and groove, it was more about creating an atmosphere; a musical narrative telling some sci-fi tale. “Escape From The Deep” is a more visceral trip entirely. Skott distinguishes himself from the other synth-driven artists with this. He doesn’t want to let you float off into space. He wants to pull you back into the ship for the rough ride back into the atmosphere. “Sangue Verde” is pure, skronky space funk. It’s landing on some intergalactic beach and finding the natives in the middle of some freaky, sweaty procession. This track is very much in the vein of Herbie Hancock’s Headhunters. It’s “Watermelon Man” in outer space, baby. Or Bernie Worrell freaking the hell out with Stewart Copeland. “Pleiades” almost has a triumphant feel to it. The synths build over some great drum fills into a huge crescendo. It feels like crossing the finish line, or gleaming the proverbial cube. “Buckets Brigade” is a ten minute opus that’s part hopped-up Tangerine Dream and Zombi without all the pretense and overzealous synth noodling. It’s cool, calculated, and slick as hell. Closing track “Taurus Ascendant” harkens back to Skott’s solo debut album Doppler, with it’s flittering electronics and wavering feeling like your floating through space. Then, Skott’s drums kick in and the song truly begins ascending. It’s a quite wonderful ending to another wonderful album by Jakob Skott.

It’s not often an artist can put out two truly great albums in one year. Sure it happens, but it’s not the norm. When you’re an artist like Jakob Skott, you gotta keep the musical mojo flowing. Taurus Rising is an excellent continuation of the musical journey he started with Amor Fati. Tight, groove-filled, and rhythms that’ll make you shake your interstellar booty, this is a great companion piece to an already great musical run in 2014.

8.2 out of 10