Album Review: The Zolas’ subtle, addictive ‘Ancient Mars’

The Zolas
“Ancient Mars”
Light Organ Records

Oh, Canada.

I’ve always thought that Canada and St. Louis have a lot in common. Both experience frigid winters, both are relegated in popular conscience as being backwaters of significant size and both carry an inferiority complex about their place in that conscience, because both know that they’re capable of so much more than anyone gives them credit for producing.

In addition to screwball comedy and jokes about moose, Canada excels at producing prog rock, the latest example being the Zolas’ “Ancient Mars,” released in October on Light Organ Records. I don’t normally recommend this approach – I like my gratification like I like my oatmeal, instant – but “Ancient Mars” demands a gradual approach. Listen twice, more if you can.

On first listen, “Ancient Mars” is pleasant, a solid release bolstered by a few singles that I’d probably put on a mixtape a couple of times. On second listen, the album opens up with track after track hiding subtle-yet-addictive hooks, the non-singles just as elaborate and intriguing as the rest. It’s a conspiratorial rather than provocative tactic, as if the Zolas are sitting nearby to gently nudge your elbow and mutter “Did you catch that?”

Vocalist/guitarist Zachary Gray and pianist Tom Dobrzanski broke from Lotus Child in 2008 to take a break and record 2009′s “Tic Toc Tic” as the Zolas. This debut was a departure from the heavy pop orientation of Lotus Child, but still retained the verve and infectiousness of a rotatable release. “Ancient Mars” is a touch more subdued, showcasing melodies layered over shuffling rhythms, which, dare I say, sounds a little bit Britpop to me.

The Zolas and “Ancient Mars” seem just as influenced by The Shins as by Sloan. It’s a rock release assembled by musical geeks, surprising the listener with complex choices of vocabulary (“let in the cold / we defenestrate the past” from “In Heaven”) and echoey lamentation (“I’ve painted you a hundred times but I still can’t sign my name” from “Local Swan”) packed into a thoughtfully short length that tricks the ear into thinking it’s minimalist even when it isn’t.

This album is not completely sharp-edged; there is some restrained fuzz on the single “Knot In My Heart,” a track that’s perhaps the most tolerably mathematical song I’ve ever heard. “Strange Girl” is its fraternal twin, coolly upbeat with a crunching riff pairing off against chiming strings and an organ so quietly insistent that you could easily miss it on first listen. The tone and lyrical content of another track, “Cold Moon,” sounds like a previously unreleased Jeff Buckley song recorded in the time of Internet stalking, and “Observatory” includes a delightful meter manipulation to fit the title into the chorus.

While I listen to all of the albums I review several times, I’m on what is perhaps my seventh session with “Ancient Mars” and still finding treasures buried in its bedrock. It’s a rare album that grants the listener with an assumed ear and appetite, giving them so much more credit than most artists are willing to acknowledge. “Ancient Mars” whispers even when it blusters, and I’d like to nudge the Zolas right back to say “I heard everything.”

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