Zen Rock & Roll
Fabio Zuffanti/Victoria Heward
Za7ie - 49/49 (2010, 167.17) **½
|Les Pieds Nus
Les Lendemains Qui Déchantent
Lune et l'Autre
À Copier 100 Fois
Bien au Chaud
À la Terre
Les Mots de Faon
|Tout Va Bien
Aïe Love You
L'Oeil du Cyclone
Les Poupées Zarbies
Les Gens Passent
Le Jour J
Je Vous Aime
Je Te Tiens
Valse à 7 Temps
La Place du Vide
Être et Avoir
Pas Que Beau
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?
End of the Age (2002, 45.13) ***½Copernican Principle
From Melting Made
End of the Age
The Birthright Circle (2004, 45.24) ***Thanatos
Undone (2011, 39.10) ***All in the Dark
At the First Glance
Antiquated Love Song
Concerto for the Original Sinners
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.
Zen Rock & Roll's albums all fit into different progressive sub-genres, making them difficult to categorise. Is this a good thing? Dunno, but I'm not sure how many listeners will like all three. I prefer End of the Age's more symphonic approach, but they all have their merits.
Simple Things (2001, 61.11/72.45) **
|I Have Seen
Give it Away
In the Waiting Line
|Out of Town
Salt Water Sound
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.
Dance Music for Insects (2002, 52.26) ***½
|The Return of Brundlefly
Praying Mantis in Love
Sweet Hopper From Osaka
It's a Cocoon Life
Day of the Locusts
The Exciting Life of Dayfly
Rule the Planet
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.
I Paint Pictures on a Wedding Dress (1998, 52.38) ***½
|She = Like Meeting Jesus
Still Half My Friend?
The Rabbit Field
Song for a Dead Singer
One Perfect Day
About the Successful Emotional
Recovery of a Gal Named Maria
|Our Daily Reminders
My Bond With You and Your Planet: Disco!
50 Years in Dope Jittery
The French Trombone
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.
Surface to Air (2006, 44.18) ****Challenger Deep
Surface to Air
Digitalis EP (2006, 18.36) ****Digitalis
Spirit Animal (2009, 57.57) ***½Spirit Animal
Shape Shift (2015, 55.42) ****Pillars of the Dawn
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.
See: Steve Moore
Zone Six (1997, 59.30) ***/T
Her Smell Hasn't Left Me
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.
See: Liquid Visions | Sula Bassana
Merlin: 'The Rock Opera' (2000, 89.09) ***
As it Was in the Beginning
The Musician Arrives
Tricked/Must You Leave So Soon?
Free for Another
The Wedding March
Our Time is Now
Song for a New Day
Merlin and Vivian
Beyond the Nightmares
How to Do the Sleeping Spell
Blessed With Peace
|How Long Can She Wait?
Uninvited Guest/The Last Battle
Wait for the Golden Age
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.
Official Fabio Zuffanti site
See: Fabio Zuffanti | Finisterre | Höstsonaten | La Maschera di Cera