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Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Zu - Goodnight, Civilization (Trost Records, 2014) ***½


It’s been over three years since their last show, five years since their last album (the awesome “Carboniferous”) and during this hiatus they’ve even lost a member (drummer Jacopo Battaglia). Meanwhile, Luca T. Mai and Massimo Pupillo seemed more interested in their other projects. Until recently, things didn’t look too good for Zu, so much so that I declared them deceased in my review of Mombu’s “Niger”. And yet, here they are, alive and kicking, with a solid new EP called “Goodnight, Civilization” and with announcements of a new LP and a new tour.

One thing that is immediately noticeable is that this not the same Zu that we last encountered on “Carboniferous”. First of all, their new drummer Gabe Serbian comes from a grindcore/metal background which means that the much beloved rock-themed rhythm section is now pushed towards a more extreme variant. Unfortunately, this also implies that the drumming patterns lost some of the exquisite feel and nuance present in Battaglia’s playing. The additional energy and dynamics that Serbian brings into the sound slightly mitigate the apparent scarcity of jazzy rhythmic elements. But the drumming is not the only thing that has changed. Zu have been altered from the inside and their basic structure and substance appear as if morphing and mutating. This metamorphosis is exhibited in the form of philosophical and worldview permutations which have deep implications in the music: Mai’s experiences with Mombu, Pupillo’s collaborations with various jazz musicians and his several years of detachment from western civilization bring a certain distress and disquiet to our preconceived notions about Zu. While all of the characteristic, recognizable ingredients of their music are still here (the deep grunt of the baritone saxophone, the distorted bass guitar, the chaotic power of the music), on every other level there are easily noticeable shifts. Towards what? Hard to say. Towards something more brooding and ominous, that’s for sure. A metaphysical transformation has taken place and Zu have returned from the dead even darker and more disturbed.

To better understand who and what the new Zu really are, we’re going to need more than just three songs and eleven minutes of music contained on the EP. The only thing that we know for certain while listening to their two new original tunes and a cover of a song by The Residents is that Zu are still an exciting and creative band. The title track, “Goodnight, Civilization”, shows glimpses of what Pupillo found while on his sabbatical, flashes of his new perspective and sources of inspiration. The bass sounds incredibly distorted and tortured, the drums hit deeper and harder, and even if the saxophone is partially buried in the mix, it’s powerful and wild sound still reigns supreme. Impressive, in any case, and it is in these moments that you feel that we’re still dealing with our good, old Zu. The second track, “Silent Weapons for Quiet Wars”, delves even deeper into the problems and pathologies of modern civilization by investigating obscure corners of conspiracy theories and mind control. The short EP is brought to an end by a really good cover of The Residents’ Easter Woman. I’m not particularly fond of covers in general, but this one is done so well you’ll forget it’s not their own song. The tradition of having well-known guest musicians on their releases continues with Mark “Barney” Greenway from Napalm Death providing grunts and growls on the final track.

All in all, Zu have risen from the dead, surviving and cheating death, and came back just a bit traumatized by the rebirth. A savory appetizer that leaves us wanting more.

P. S. I had a chance to see Zu live a few weeks ago and, indeed, the band didn’t sound as tight as I’m used to hearing them. There are some issues with the drumming passages, with the way that Serbian’s style feels flat and monotonous at times, especially on older songs. A sort of uneasiness in the playing resides in the air, uneasiness that I’m sure will be gone as soon as they have a few more concerts under their belts (this was only their second show of the comeback tour).

The EP can be downloaded from Bandcamp.

5 comments:

Paolo Casertano said...

I agree with you Antonio. I had the chance to see them at the EP release concert here in Rome. Their sound was, in my opinion, heavily affected by the venue but I'm afraid that, with this new drummer, they're a going for a "too orthodox doom" new path - at least for me. And, in general, I cannot completely understand why Luca T. Mai keeps on playing a baritone saxophone as a soprano. Nevertheless I strongly believe that Pupillo is one of the most interesting bass player around. In any case, as you said, an EP with 3 songs is maybe too few for an opinion about their new directions.

lop lop said...

I was actually surprised at how good this is, given Battaglia's departure (though certainly not on par with the awesome Carboniferous).

Btw, a new full-length is scheduled for a fall release, and it will feature Eugene Robinson of Oxbow on vocals.

Cheers,
-Julian

Martin Schray said...

I also agree with the three of you. Zu's new approach rather reminds of old Painkiller stuff. Although I also prefer "Carboniferous" to this EP, I am looking forward to their new album and the tour.
Paolo, you haven't told me that you have seen them in Rome. Are you hiding things from me?

Paolo Casertano said...

Forgive me Lord Martin for I have sinned. It will never happen again!
Just out of curiosity. The venue was Forte Prenestino (a squat since mid eighties - one of the biggest in Europe as far as I know - a real stronghold from WWII with galleries and parade grounds, a place where I have spent a lot of time in my teens). The real problem is that, in my opinion, a concert can't start at half past midnight, specially if you're in a crowded place having problems to hear the music on the stage (even if that loud and powerful), overwhelmed by the people (absolutely not interested to the music) just chatting around...the louder they play, the louder they speak...I'm definitely growing old...

Antonio said...

I must say that even though the concert I attended wasn't really showcasing Zu at their best, it's clear that a giant weight has been lifted from Massimo's shoulders. They are all finding their footing again, not having performed in quite a bit of time and all that. I'm pretty certain they're going to come back as strong as ever.