A record of such dark imagination and primal intensity that I cannot be sure it wasn’t conjured by evil wizards in some shadowy, forlorn corner of the world (turns out they’re in Rome, so I was close.) Rich, complex ideas swirl in a pit of blackness; guitars, bass and drums twist and contort – betraying the conventional; the obliteration of the familiar. While your mind may be trying to shove the sound you are hearing into a dirty hole marked “Tool meets Battles meets QOTSA,” it is all a lie. Wherever this sound came from – you have not been there and probably wouldn’t survive the journey, anyway.
It’s a delicious brutality that permeates from ZAIBATSU’s Zero – 10 tracks of blistering guitar, rumbling bass, and precision-kill drums. Vocals take a backseat, chiming in now and again to remind you with its labored, gloomy tone that you and your world are doomed.
From one second to the next, Zero pounds away at the soft, open wound of modern metal rock/alternative, distending and tearing at its extremes. Why? Because fuck modern metal rock/alternative; that’s why. This is the sound of a post-civilization – an after-shock, eating the remains of what once was. This is what it sounds like when the machine stops running, and we all go back – back into the cold, desperate nights and vast, empty days. Welcome to an empire of nihilism and honest human decay. “Regressive” rock, for us post-modern primitives.
Expert musicianship cross-pollinated with a fiercely imaginative production, Zero runs the gamut of dynamics and energy. Some songs are more powerful than others, to be sure, but all of them contain a substantial amount of balls. The guitars are easy to read, armed with adequate bite and presence even when the riff at hand realizes it’s full and monstrous potential. They forge a concrete partnership with the bass guitar, which bellows and growls in unison. But how hard and how dark can one band rock before the life – the vitality and excitement – of their record is leached away into the abyss of aesthetics?
Nope. ZAIBATSU doesn’t stop. Each song is unique, full of individual drive and temperament to the extent that it catapults you all the way through Zero. I didn’t want to stop listening, not even to rewind and hear a particular passage that appealed to me. I just wanted to sit in the dark and let it wash over me, allowing my preconceptions to float through the ether and into the flame. Zero will surprise you, freak you out, energize you, move your body, and scorch your brain.
“Plastic Machine Head” sets the tone. Sort of. The album announces itself with a rumble, shaking loose the bits and pieces of defunct technology struggling to boot-up. An ecosystem of sound fragments and ghosts begin to blossom and it all quickly grows out of control, bass and drums emerging to pound out the footsteps of men on old soil made new. The wild screech of tomorrow empties out into the song proper, thrashing violently. The band has an extreme talent for communicating chaos with a firm and calculated sensibility. They take “math rock” and shove it up your ass, running headlong into a tempo change that feels like the stairway to Hell – only to magically defuse itself with a crud-sample ascending harp. Brilliant and complete.
“Chemtrails” is one of my favorite tracks, dirty and mournful – a personality split by the low-groaning doom of the vocals and the filthy, hard texture of the bass. At two-minutes forty-eight, the band displays their genius for switching things up in just the right way at just the right time. No single opportunity for powerful transitioning is ignored or under-utilized. If you think you know what they’ll do next, you’re wrong. Both strange and exhilarating, Zero fights off blandness and convention with bursts of righteous flame.
We’re shoved directly into “Mantra 3P,” which registers a greater amount of ‘chaos’ and darkness – in part, because the song intelligently incorporates lulls and space to maximum effect. To be covered in blackness and loudness isn’t enough to unsettle the mind and set the ears on edge. Sometimes you have to draw them in with a whisper before you scream. Much of the song is spent in a militant march, stomping over a guitar-scorched earth. Finally the stride is broken, and a massive low rumble reduces the world to flittering ashes and distant echoes. And then, like a tidal waves, it all comes crashing down – walls of great cities reduced to rubble.
“Metal” bands strive desperately to produce this effect with even a modicum of cinematic grandiosity, but their efforts are often overwrought. By focusing efforts on ‘simplistic’ patterns that the listener can follow as they mutate and expand, the band has well avoided ridiculousness and still pursued epic scenes of sonic destruction. The difference is comprehensibility. The clean, precise playing effectively communicates each and every idea audibly.
In terms of production and track sequencing, the record is absolutely flawless. Every sound is present to win; nothing weak shall remain. Even the transitions between songs feel thoughtfully crafted. The arch of the album is steep and compelling, the energy lifting and lowering impeccably. The transition from “Technocracy” into “Abac” is brutal and abrupt – as it should be – whereas “Chemtrails” into “Mantra 3P” and “Starless” into “Collateral Language” are seamless. As an album-fiend and a shunner of singles, the juxtaposition between songs and the resulting narrative speak to my core.
“Technocracy” plays with lithium-calm text-to-speech and incomprehensible shouting samples over a machine-insistent beat. “We want your head to be plastic”? Yes. The employee of the month has set a record number of working hours. Of course, he’s dead as a result. “He is the real working class hero.” The decline of the tempo mid-song is strong and well executed. Usually, odd devices like these feel cheap and gimmicky. ZAIBATSU, using a mix of audible conviction and competence, takes them to a whole other place altogether. But that’s hardly the sum of their magic.
The end of “Abac” is quite beautiful and encouraging – without betraying the established mood of the record. In fact, it prepares the listener adequately for the teetering waltz “Starless” and its lovely guitar passage at the thirty-second mark. Wait. Was that a goddamn dolphin? What the hell? How is it that something so absurd could be the perfect sonic addition at that exact moment, before the shit hits the fan? How did they figure that one out? I’m in absolute awe listening to it the first time. Just as the screams (panned left and right) during the chorus were the correct textures to fuel the evil emitting from the singer’s strained throat. And the fact that we end up at a colorful – and disturbing – three ring circus? Well… that’s just icing on the mind-fuck cake.
And in case there was any confusion, Zero ends with the heavy “Collateral Language” in order to make it clear that ZAIBATSU knows their math and they know how to lay down the motherfucking rock. Their record is, from top-to-bottom, a sonic conquest unlike any other. Zero is easily one of my favorite albums of 2013.