Z the Void seem to be Zane Edge's solo project, Planets Round being a kind of instrumental electronic heavy prog (!) album, shifting between beautiful acoustic sections (possibly at their best on the gentle first half of Stasis) and less effective metal guitar stuff. Edge plays samplotron strings on most tracks.
Isabelle "Zazie" de Truchis de Varennes (from a childhood nickname), is a French singer-songwriter, whose seventh album, 2010's Za7ie, was released in two different versions, a seven-disc set (six of music and one of images) and a 'best of' single-disc version. The themed discs cover a multitude of styles, mainstream pop, dance/electronica, pop/rock, balladry, folk, ambient, even children's music. Is it any good? The largely ambient disc seven is the most listenable for those not into French pop music, but I can't honestly recommend this to anyone other than Zazie's fans. Bruno Le Roux is credited with Mellotron on the last track on disc two, Aïe Love You, but if that vaguely flutey sound that pipes its way through the track is supposed to be a Mellotron... Perhaps not, eh?
Strangely for a Swedish band, Zello's most obvious comparison are Kansas. OK, so they have a violinist, but the influence goes much deeper than that; there's some ripping Hammond playing on both these albums and although the vocals are weaker, the singing has something of Steve Walsh about it, too. Even the lyrics are in the 'Kansas metaphysical' line... Most of all, though, the similarity is in the melodies; you know, those major-key violin bits over distorted Hammond with that 'wide-screen' American prairie feel to them? Anyway, beats ripping Genesis... The band debuted with 1996's Zello, accurately described as pretty much a lost Kansas album from their heyday. It's impossible not to make the comparison, although not in a derogatory way; this is a fine album, even if The Children Are Crying starts as if it's about to lurch into Song for America's Incomudro. There's even a track called Hold On, thankfully considerably better than Kansas' '80s AOR horror. Violinist Lennart Glenberg Eriksson channels Robbie Steinhardt (or is it David Ragsdale?) with aplomb, too, tackling several brief solo pieces as links between longer tracks. Keys man Anders Altzarfeldt plays occasional samplotron, although his speciality is rich, distorted Hammond in a, er, Steve Walsh style. Anyway, we get a couple of brief string parts on Overture.
Three years on, Quodlibet appeared, essentially more of the same, although vocally, I hear a touch of John Wetton in Anthem Of The Long Forgotten Loss. The song structures this time round are rather less Kansas; Zwecia is twenty-five minutes long, a song length that Kansas never even nearly attempted. Opener I Will Be The Wind is the most Kansas-alike track on the album, with a superb chorus melody; some bands could've turned this song into a dismal AOR effort, but in Zello's hands it works brilliantly. Actually, the only non-samplotron tracks here are three short folk-influenced violin (or should that be fiddle?) pieces, sounding strangely more English than American. There's actually very little samplotron on Quodlibet from Altzarfeldt and Mats Olsson (haven't I seen that name somewhere else?), mostly just little bursts of choir here and there, with an occasional string chord, so it's really only used to enhance their sound, rather than being central to it. Incidentally, after a several-year silence, Zello released First Chapter, Second Verse in 2004, which appears to be a re-recording (or reissue?) of Zello, losing a couple of tracks and adding a couple more, although I've no idea whether or not it has any samplotron involvement.
To be honest, Zen Rock & Roll's album sleeves almost brought on a bout of existential despair, so I'm pleased to be able to announce that their albums are actually pretty decent, if rather derivative. Essentially Jonathan Saunders' solo project, they sit firmly in the 'American prog' bracket, particularly when he sings (fair enough: he's American), his influences including Genesis, Yes and various other lesser-known '70s outfits, plus a largish dose of Spock's Beard for good measure. His debut, 2002's End of the Age, consists of three lengthy tracks, possibly too long for their content, although Saunders has a good stab at keeping his compositions interesting. Plenty of (fairly obviously) samplotron, with strings throughout, choirs on Copernican Principle and flutes on End Of The Age.
Two year on and The Birthright Circle goes more for the 'three short(er) and one side-long' layout, the shorter tracks veering slightly AORwards, unfortunately. Originality's still at a bit of a premium (Richard has a heavy Afterglow feel to it), while the twenty three-minute Circle is, again, rather too long for its significant content. Also once again, samplotron across the board, all the usual sounds in all the usual places.
I'm not the first to point out that Saunders' first album in seven years, 2011's Undone, features a sharp left-turn musically, being more progressive pop that 'prog' per se, although nothing here contains a strong enough hook to actually be a hit, in the unlikely event that it should be released as a single. Saying that, the material's mostly pretty good, probable highlight being the album's one 'real' prog track, fourteen-minute instrumental Concerto For The Original Sinners. Samplotron on about half the tracks, mostly strings with a little choir.
Zero 7 are the British downtempo electronica duo of Henry Binns and Sam Hardaker, whose debut, 2001's Simple Things, is pretty much what you'd expect of that description: downbeat, soul-inflected electronica, or 'people in their thirties dinner party music' as it's known round here. In fairness, opener I Have Seen's loping groove and the cinematic End Theme aren't too bad, but not only is the rest of the album excruciatingly dull, it's also far too long, both track lengths and the whole kaboodle. Someone plays Mellotron samples on a few tracks, notably the string lines on Destiny and Out Of Town, but I really can't imagine why you'd track this down just to hear them. One for people for whom Morcheeba were too edgy.
Munich's Anton Zinkl is an electronic musician of the modern persuasion, whose sixth album, 2002's Dance Music for Insects, is far better than you might expect, bearing little relation to the ubiquitous dance scene. As you can see from the song titles, it's essentially a concept album based around its title, influences shifting between '70s and '80s electronica, prog and psychedelia, amongst other genres. Best tracks? To my great surprise, not to mention delight, nothing here offends, better material including opener The Return Of Brundlefly (nice über-distorted Hammond), the brief, faux-Oriental Sweet Hopper From Osaka, Catapillar Drive (nice monosynth) and Day Of The Locusts.
Although Zinkl is credited with Mellotron, it quickly becomes obvious that it's no such thing. Opener The Return Of Brundlefly features the strings heavily (and flute lightly), but the flutes on Praying Mantis In Love give the sample game away, being played too smoothly and quickly for their own good. That seems to be it for the sample use, although it's possible some faint background choirs pop up elsewhere. So; an interesting and actually quite unique album, which is enough of a rarity 'round these parts to be worthy of comment. Recommended for those looking for something a little different.
Florida's Zach Ziskin seems to be as well known for his production (Hilary McRae, amongst others) as his singing career. May I suggest that he sticks to what he (probably) does best? 2002's Real as the Memory is a cheesy, faux-'70s singer-songwriter effort, infested with Ziskin's irritating, often falsetto tones and so-light-they-might-just-float-away nonsense like opener Figurine or Lift. To be honest, it barely scrapes two stars for containing vaguely Neil Young-esque songs like The Golden Age, which just might, possibly, sound good performed by someone else. Is that meant to be Fernando Perdomo's samplotron strings in the background on Waking Hour? I get the feeling the Ziskin could produce a passable singer-songwriter record, but probably only in the literal sense of producing someone else; as I haven't heard any of his production work, I can't say whether he actually has. If you edited the decent bits out of this album, you'd make about two halfway decent, albeit disjointed songs.
dEUS collaborator Stef Kamil Carlens formed his own outfit in the mid-'90s, called Moondog Jr, although a legal dispute forced a name change to Zita Swoon after one album. It's difficult to describe the music on the Zitas' second album, I Paint Pictures on a Wedding Dress; think 'indie, but with plenty of variety and imagination', i.e. very little like any British bands falling into that category. The quality of the material is somewhat variable, although My Bond With You And Your Planet: Disco! raised a smile, while the slower tracks manage to be solemn without being over-gloomy. Dieter tells me that a band member has assured him Carlens' 'Mellotron' is sampled; there's only one definite sighting, anyway: the flute part on Our Daily Reminders, which is as good as anyone else's Mellotron flute arrangements, and better than many, despite being fake. One track doth not a samplotron album make, though, so if their style doesn't sound like your bowl of gruel, best go elsewhere. Incidentally, I very much doubt if there's any 'Mellotron' on their debut release, Music Inspired By Sunrise and there's definitely none on their third album, Life = a Sexy Sanctuary.
Zombi (named for the Dario Argento Goblin-soundtracked slasher flick) have a pretty unique setup: they're an instrumental drums/bass duo who both double extensively on analogue synths (hoorah!), sounding like a cross between Tangerine Dream, Vangelis, Pink Floyd's rockier moments and above all, Rush. For the record, their gear list reads like this:
Their second album proper, 2006's 'vinyl-length' Surface to Air, is an adrenaline rush of growling synths and sequenced rhythms, all with a solid, über-technical rhythm section holding it down. The compositions are excellent and the synth sounds are phenomenal. It's difficult to pinpoint highpoints, as they're all high, but opener Challenger Deep shocks with its Signals-era polysynths, while 'side-long' epic Night Rhythms is pretty fab, too. They use fairly obviously sampled Mellotron on the latter piece, with string and choir parts here and there, but the album's chief thrust is its synth work; the 'Mellotron' sounds almost intrusive in such a synthetic world. The same year's Digitalis EP highlights three different sides of Zombi: the mid-paced title track sounds like the Tangs with drums and heavy 'Mellotron' strings, Siberia is an ominous, shifting piece based on huge slabs of pseudo-Mellotron choir, while Sapphire points the way the band would eventually head, with a dancier feel to the rhythm parts.
It took the duo three years to follow up with Spirit Animal and if there's a major change, it's not so much in the composition, but the textures: fewer polysynths, more samplotron. Is this a good thing? Not necessarily, I have to say; I feel the band work better with a more synthetic instrumental palette, so while the synths are all over the album, they don't hold sway over all as on Surface to Air. Maybe listening to these two albums one after the other wasn't a good idea; the shock value's gone, second time round, or is it that the band are a little less focussed? Hard to say, but somehow, while still damn' good, this doesn't seem to cut the mustard quite as well as its predecessor. The samplotron crops up on every track, to the point of overuse in places. Maybe it would work better if it were real? Don't know and I shouldn't look a gift horse in the mouth.
I haven't heard the duo's (admittedly sparse) interim releases, but 2015's Shape Shift is an absolute return to form, everything that makes them as good as they are present and correct, in spades. Would you believe the album features no low points? No should've-left-it-in-the-can moments? No half-arsed-ideas-turned-into-so-called-songs? Despite a 55-minute running-time, every track here is vital, showcasing their strengths, possibly proving that a four-year gap between albums have given them a chance to revitalise. Do I need to highlight, er, highlights? OK, try opener Pillars Of The Dawn, complete with crushing bass synths, or the point in Interstellar Package where the tempo plummets, or woozy, hypnotic quarter-hour closer Siberia II. Or everything else? Next to no samplotron, mind, with nowt but choirs all over Pillars Of The Dawn; dare I say, they wouldn't be missed were they not present? But then, I wouldn't be writing this review. More please, Zombi.
So; three very good albums (and an EP) full of beautiful analogue goodness. THIS, music world, is what you threw away when you embraced digital synthesis. Admittedly, these sounds aren't for everyone, but they are for me. Thank you, Zombi.
Zone Six are one of several bands led by German psychonaut Dave Schmidt, including Sula Bassana and Liquid Visions, and are as trippy as the best of them. Zone Six is an improvised album; would it be cruel of me to say, "And you can tell"? Full of Hans-Peter Ringholz' acid-drenched guitar leads and Jodi Barry's Gilli Smyth-style 'space whispers', it meanders along in a suitably stoned kind of way, occasionally hitting the spot, but too often not. To be honest, this is a bit hit-and-miss; Dream Eyeland is the semi-obligatory Ozrics-style festi-dub number, while The Place is a weird piano and vocal number that seems to have dropped in from another album. I know it's meant to be improvised, but it just ends up being all over the place.
Just one 'Mellotron' track, from Schmidt, with a strident string part towards the end of opener Barbwired Box. I've no idea why they didn't use their samples more extensively; they might've provided a bit of sorely-needed focus. Anyway, a very trippy album that may not grab you any more than it has me. Then again, it may. Not much samplotron, either way, so don't go buying it for that.
You can add Zoppo Trump to the ever-growing list of obscure progressive bands who suddenly pop up, thirty or even forty years later, with a full-length CD to their name. It seems they had two tracks on a 1976 various artists effort, Scena Westphalica (on the Förderturm label), but several earlier tracks have turned up, all good studio recordings from '71-2, enough to make a CD issue viable. The earlier material is fairly jazzy, unlikely to turn up in anyone's 'best German prog' list any time soon, although it's perfectly respectable stuff. The '76 tracks, Wellengang and Fluktuation, are more symphonic than the earlier material, while still suffering from the fatal German prog malady of... well, what is it that's wrong with most German progressive rock? They had a handful of great bands, with seemingly hundreds of very much also-rans (think: Streetmark, Flaming Bess, Octopus, Shaa Khan...), to which list you can, sadly, add Zoppo Trump. Martin Buschmann plays sax and keys, allegedly including Mellotron, but when you actually hear the tracks in question, you realise you're hearing nothing more than a common-or-garden string synth. Why? I mean WHY? do labels insist on this kind of misleading labelling? Rant, rave, blah blah blah...
Italy's Zu, linked with both Shockabilly's Eugene Chadbourne and Guapo, have been recording for over a decade now, releasing ten or more albums in that period. Going by their latest, 2009's Carboniferous, the Guapo connection isn't misplaced, at least in reference to their pre-keyboard work from the late '90s, with jagged rhythms, frequently atonal sax and mucho distortion a speciality. Opener Ostia is possibly the best track, if only due to the novelty value, so to speak, of its introduction to their sound for the unwary. Jacopo Battaglia plays samplotron, with a ghostly, few-second string part on Chthonian.
Bassist Fabio Zuffanti is possibly the major name on the Italian progressive scene at the moment, having fingers in many pies: Finisterre, Höstsonaten, La Maschera di Cera... Basically, the cream of Italian prog in the new millennium, although I'm not entirely convinced you can add Merlin: 'The Rock Opera' to that list. In fairness, this double CD does exactly what it says on the tin; it's a rock opera, complete with eight different singers taking roles, sounding like a rather more acceptable version of those rubbishy Andrew Lloyd-Webber productions with which we've been cursed for the last few decades. It's a straight collaboration between Zuffanti and Victoria Heward, a British poet, who wrote the English-language libretto, with which the Italian cast cope admirably well, giving the impression of an updated version of Puccini, or similar.
Zuffanti collaborator Agostino Macor plays keys throughout, including sampled 'Tron, although it tends to get lost in amongst the swathes of digital 'boards; it certainly isn't at the front of the mix, but then, this is a vocal album above all, with the music relegated to second place, at least to my ears. Several tracks feature 'Mellotron' strings, although it's possible there's a bit of choir here and there, too, though it really is hard to tell. I'm not sure exactly to whom I should be trying to recommend this album; some prog fans, notably those into bombastic neo- stuff (Ayreon, anything involving Clive Nolan), may delight in its OTT-ness, but the 'traditional' progressive audience may be horrified by its associations with West End/Broadway musicals, although I'm sure it'll make a spectacular stage show. Anyway, very little audible samplotron, so please don't bother on that account.