Tuesday, July 7, 2015

Album Review: Zodiac - Sonic Child

There is an inescapable truth that every music fan must come to understand; no matter how much time you spend searching for and listening to new music, you can never hear everything. You can scour as many sites and message boards for recommendations as you can find, but there will always be quality records that slip past you. I wish I could hear everything that could potentially interest me, but even if I had a complete list of those records as they came long, I doubt I would even have the time. And so, with a bit of a lull in the release schedule right now, I went searching in the ethos for records that fit the style that has my attention at the moment. A bit of blind luck turned me towards Zodiac, and their album from last year, "Sonic Child".

Retro rock has been riding a resurgence in the last two or three years, but other than Graveyard and Blues Pills, I haven't found anything in that movement that I think is going to last. What seems to be the case is that plenty of bands are able to pull out some vintage gear and replicate the sound of flimsy 70s recordings, but they all lack the songwriting and diversity of influences that was the hallmark of that time. Basically, they are bands that copy a style without understanding anything about what goes on under the surface.

That is not a complaint I can register against Zodiac. "Sonic Child" is an album that fully grasps what a proper rock and roll record from that era was supposed to be, and fills the gap between Graveyard releases as well as I can possibly imagine.

After opening with a bit of spoken word and some jazzy chords, the record properly begins with "Swinging On The Run", which jumps out of the speakers with the kind of flawless guitar tone more of these bands need to copy. It deftly balances the warmth of a clean tone with the heft of distortion, a sound that has the perfect amount of clarity to make it perfectly clear this band isn't hiding anything behind their breaking-down amps. The sound is absolutely vintage, but it is not merely window-dressing. There's an energy running through the song that recalls the olden days of rock, and it's infectious when the chorus hooks you with its simple but catchy melody. And if you think that is going to tell you what the record is all about, you have another thing coming.

The title track introduces a heavier dose of Southern Rock attitude, with a slurred guitar line that came from the swamps, and another chorus that is deceptively simple but effective. "Sad Song" turns the music darker, with vocals that evoke the whiskey-soaked croak of Mark Lannegan, which is definitely intended as a compliment. While a lot of these bands have vocalists who try miserably to replicate the constricted high notes of Robert Plant, Zodiac goes the other way with more of a gruff baritone, which is not only refreshing, but just a damn fine voice to listen to.

"Out Of The City" is a short and sweet rocker, but the riff that sits under the chorus is one of those pockets of groove that is irresistible. And with some Jerry Lee Lewis style piano pounding in the background, it keep the record moving in different directions. So too does "A Penny And A Dead Horse", which turns from steel-guitar laced country ballad, to sweeping rocker, with a half-time chorus that is perfectly timed, and uses the tempo shifting to keep the seven minutes from ever feeling like a drag.

"Good Times" is another favorite, where the jazz influence from the opening bit crops back up, with a guitar riff in the chorus that is so catchy, and shows just how beautifully the amps are pushing. "Rock Bottom Blues" follows as the centerpiece of the album, a nine-minute workout of bluesy swagger. The song is slow and smoldering, with some beautiful lead guitar work breaking up the sections. That sort of song usually tries my patience, but this one is good enough that even I'm not going to complain.

The album closes with "Just Music", which goes back to the well of wonderfully catchy rock and roll. Ending the record on the giant blues number might have been a bit too morose, so giving us something to smile about is a smart decision.

The limited edition of the album adds two more tracks on, the rockers "Not Fragile" and "Shine On", which feature some of the best riffs of the bunch, but I can see why they were left for bonuses. They're still very good songs, and do nothing but give you more enjoyable music to listen to, but they weren't needed to produce a fully balanced record.

"Sonic Child" is a record that I'm sorry to say I missed last year, upon its release. It is clearly one of the best retro rock albums to have come out of this wave, and shows Zodiac as a band that is growing leaps and bounds with every record. This is their crowning achievement, both in songs and that stunning artwork, and would have been a strong contender for one of my Top Ten Albums Of 2014, had I known about it. I can't change the past, but I can tell you about Zodiac, because they've made an impressive album.

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