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Sunday, May 22, 2011

Album Review: Zombi - Escape Velocity

Zombi - Escape Velocity
2011 Relapse Records
Ray Van Horn, Jr.

One of the biggest paradoxes in the music scene has to be the fact that synth proggers Zombi holds a captive chokehold over metalheads, their least likely candidates were we still gauging music by eighties' standards. If you lived the original metal scene, keys and synths were taboo, even though Rainbow, Deep Purple, Rush and UFO could shake the earth with them. All of these groups being more rock and prog-oriented, they, like King Crimson and Emerson, Lake and Palmer, have been adopted by the metal community. This is a far smarter metal community that has rebuked the schmaltzy synths of Bon Jovi and Warrant and understands the capacity for new frontiers that can be staked when keys are used for explorative measures instead of endearing them to the teen and tween girlie population.

Thus, Pittsburgh's Zombi has been the toast of the metal and horror circuit, even when their latest album Escape Velocity is more in the heart of Kraftwerk, Tangerine Dream and Vangelis than Rush. It becomes strangely logical that Zombi find its home on a record label catering specifically to metal and art noise sanctions.

While Zombi's previous album Spirit Animal suggested a transition towards heavier extremes with thickening guitar grooves, as of Escape Velocity, consider Zombi back in a Blade Runner-Krautrock mentality. With more emphasis on a dabbed-out "Midnight Special" synth-dance hum, Escape Velocity is the soundtrack to a hopeful retro action vehicle instead of the Romero-esque splatter scapes Zombi created on Surface to Air and even Cosmos.

With virtually no guitars this time around, Escape Velocity is the least metal-friendly, but do remember Zombi aren't headbangers on the front. Rather, they cater to their own whims which share a few similar spaces where metalheads congregate. This includes horror, cyberpunk and sci-fi realms, which is really where Escape Velocity chooses to operate. If you're savvy enough to take their trip with them, be your hair long or short, that's to the good. Damn good, in this fact, because Zombi proves yet again there's no limit to their craft, even when cultivating the past for their own transcendental purposes.

Even the cover artwork suggests a postmodern throwback, a visual alterverse scoped out somewhere between Tangerine Dream, Robert Palmer, Pink Floyd and Barbarella. The title track and "Shrunken Heads" both throb like adrenalized chase sequences in some as-of-yet-unmade futuristic vigilante romp. The smartly-mapped "DE3" likewise builds into a climactic swoosh of aeronautic synth rock that had this writer thinking about the short-lived comic book series Hex. Said DC Comics series from the eighties found western bounty hunter Jonah Hex improbably swept into a Mad Maxian hellhole with blazing laser pistols instead of silver six shooters. Oddly enough, Escape Velocity's slow-strutting finale, "Time of Troubles" rings like a final stanza comeuppance for a far flung antihero left at the crossroads to clean up or clean house. Theme from an imaginary space western, as it were.

Steve Moore and Anthony Paterra bring their entire schism down on this album. While Spirit Animal remains their most decorative album to-date and Surface to Air their most atmospheric, Escape Velocity slips back into the stripped cadence of Cosmos and almost reboots their entire enterprise accordingly. Paterra largely stamps out the album's tempos in a primary sense ("Shrunken Heads" holds to a steady, machinated groove) delivering only scattered bits of polyrhythm. For instance, he lays a double-timed march overtop the singular drive on "Escape Velocity." In all, Escape Velocity averts from the Peart-esque rapid tom rolls, instead keeping a virtual pulse ala Kraftwerk, even if Paterra does hammer down thunderous snare strikes and double-backed bass rolls on the 2:51 (a yawn in time for these guys) "Slow Oscillations."

This strategm allows Moore to concentrate largely on the keys instead of worrying so much about guitar and bass. While there remains a Goblins-loving swoon to Moore's playing, the effect is dramatically changed on Escape Velocity as he sets his sequencers loose to loft out the album's sense of freefalling. As if the duo had a binge reading session of Heavy Metal the magazine, Zombi takes their listeners on yet another entertaining instrumental journey through portals that remain channeled through the late seventies and early eighties.

Space is not necessarily the final frontier...

Rating: ****1/2


Anonymous said...

Zombi were,and I DO mean "were" ,pretty cool in a menacing way (not unlike Tangerine Dream up until 1976).But this album has me wondering how desperate "metal" and "Horror" fans are for musical "kicks". This is an album cutting it too close to disco,and the sadly depleted synths of 1980's Tangerine Dream.

Where are the balls is what I have to ask? This is flaccid ,lazy,sequencer runs with disco drumming. Come on,get more inventive guys. Please don't lose the grain now.

Ray Van Horn, Jr. said...

Thanks for the counterpoint, Anon. I did sit and mull them around in my head a bit. I unfortunately stomached the original disco era and am only happy for that to say I was there in the theater when Star Wars: A New Hope came out in 1977 and repulsed even as a kid when the SW theme was disco-ized, barf. I think today's definition of disco (since we are in a disco revival for sure) is in terms of Katy Perry and pop puss stuff. Yeah, this album has danceability, but I maintain it's closer to a throwback sci-fi score. I don't think these dudes are interested whatsoever in disco itself, but rather, setting a certain mood, even if that means dropping elements and letting the Moogs take over. Let's see what they do next, either sculpting with more instruments again or if this is the vein they wish to operate in. I really feel they wanted to honor Krautrock and sci-fi on this one. Cheers...

Anonymous said...

Great review. This Cd is 100% about the atmosphere/feel. If you've ever played with a synth or a kaossilator you'll appreciate the worlds Zombi create.

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