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Saturday, July 17, 2010

Albums You Can't Live Without: Zombi - Surface to Air

Fitting that a synth-driven prog duo yielding an affinity for Romero and Carpenter movies would hail from Pittsburgh, Land of the Dead--or the original Zombieland if you like. Also with a love of early Rush, Tangerine Dream, the Goblins, Air, Vangelis, Emerson, Lake and Palmer, Kraftwerk and King Crimson, the electro verve Zombi emits is freaking addictive.

Okay, so maybe Zombi isn't pure metal, but poll this duo's fan base and you'll find an equal share of headbangers amongst the horror and prog chain gangs. Never again will metalheads bitch about synths now that Zombi has legitimized the instrument like no other to the genre, Tony Carey notwithstanding.

It does help if your idea of fun is watching a throwback marathon of Carpenter's three Halloween films, Escape from New York, Phantasm, Blade Runner, Tenebrae and the original Dawn of the Dead more than you would a weekend's fill of football.

Steeltown has watched its bragging rights to six Lombardis and a recent Stanley Cup vanish on the shoulders of thug antics in the Steelers' case and an improbable playoff choke by the Penguins.

Still, there's Zombi and if you've never sat down with this brilliant tag team of synth rock revivalists, you have a homework assignment. You don't necessarily have to know horror films from top-to-bottom in order to appreciate Zombi's impeccable talents, but you do get what they're about if you're one of those film nerds already humming the upcoming score splice to Friday the 13th, The Fog or even The Howling before the scene arrives.

Of their three studio albums, Cosmos, Surface to Air and Spirit Animal, the middle release is perhaps the most vivid of Zombi's instrumental albums, if Spirit Animal is their most detailed and rock-oriented.

Surface to Air is Zombi at their most ethereal, drenched heavily with Korg synths, rich bass tones and would-be Neil Peart drum rolls and cymbal dances. The majority of the ride is sunk into a John Carpenter and Alan Howarth vehicle. Say what you will about the film Halloween III: Season of the Witch; any synth rock purist or creepy soundtrack junkie will raise a toast to the movie's magnificent score. Therein gives you a rationale behind Surface to Air's reason for being.

Not that the entire album is a fleshed-out homage to Carpenter, but Surface to Air is the best eighties horror score via old-time Rush that never was. For only two men, Steve Moore and A.E. Paterra, the spaces Zombi fills on Surface to Air are tremendous even with a decided minimalist approach. Spirit Animal would find Moore and Paterra filling in massive gaps, yet for Surface of Air's purposes, the stripped focus upon a primary stark texture takes the project well past its inherent shamble party for the undead.

"Challenger Deep" and "Digitalis" carry that Carpenter-Goblins-Rush vibe (more so on the oxygen-compressed "Digitalis") with a mid-tempo slink allowing A.E. Paterra to run rampant across his toms even a level kick. Steve Moore lays down grinding bass cadence to keep the songs' loftiness from gusting to nearly nowhere. Instead, they hold the breeze for the 9-minute odyssey of "Legacy," which shifts from a Dario Argento score into an extensive prog jam.

As the title track might be the most evident of Rush's influence despite a crafty shift in tone which makes you think the song has spliced into a new one, the gutsy 18:34 "Night Rhythms" is Zombi's masterpiece.

Opening with a sensuous synth weave ala Vangelis, "Night Rhythms" becomes an audile journey as it unexpectedly drops into a cataclysm on the spill of a prolonged deep synth note. Building up tension like a showdown between the living and the non, Steve Moore sets his sequencers for a repetitive line of five shuffling notes--soothing in a strange way, disarming in another. While "Night Rhythms" explores this specific arrangement by tweaking it, amping it with coldwave and subsequently blossoming efferversence from it, Moore and Paterra pick up the pace then explode with breathtaking layers in the finale. Eighteen-plus minutes of magnificence with nary a waste.

Ben Roethlisberger may have embarassed Pittsburgh, but the city Romero fictitiously mauled into the grave has new bragging rights. Zombi is instrumental prog we could all grow addicted to. Steve Moore and A.E. Paterra never wank or embarass themselves. They have purpose and drive to their compositions and all the better you feel like strapping on the ghoul paint while listening. Someone with a shrewd booking capacity needs to hook these two up in a parking lot performance at the Monroeville Mall--site of Romero's piece de resistance zombie romp.

In Steeltown, the dead shall walk the earth...


The Mule said...

Excellent album! I feel lucky to have seen them live once, opening for Isis. Thanks for giving them their due, Ray.

Ray Van Horn, Jr. said...

I love Zombi and hope more people discover them, so its my pleasure to hip those who don't know them. Opening for Isis? Wow! If hadn't seen Isis so many times (including withe Pelican) I'd be gonzo jealous. I was going to travel to Philly to see them last winter but it was one of the blizzard weekends.