Has pop culture hit peak Zombie? It used to be a special thing to see a slate-gray ghoul just tearing into victims’ guts and jugulars up on the big screen, but you can pretty well turn on the tube at any time these days to catch an episode of mega-hit the Walking Dead, not to mention its recent off-shoot, Fear the Walking Dead. Add to that a non-stop grind of low-budget horror flicks easily streamable through Netflix and you’ve got a lot of moaning, groaning corpses giving us the business 24-7.
Where’s the thrill we got from the old Romero flicks? Or the shock we got from popping a fetid Fulcian orgy of entrails and severed limbs into our VCR’s? Here’s where Pittsburgh-bred instrumental prog duo Zombi come in. It’s been four years since the band issued their last studio LP, Escape Velocity, and even longer since the act truly exacted the kinds of prog grooves Goblin grafted to flesh-eater films in the late ’70s. Shape Shift has Zombi morphing back to these kind of textures.
“Pillars of the Dawn” is monolithic, a hammer-swinging crusher bringing Anthony Paterra’s heavily-pounded prog swing together with Steve Moore’s gothic swells of synth and other assorted oscillations. “Total Breakthrough” likewise offers up slightly irregular rhythms, with the duo laying various modes of syncopation above a solid 7/4 beat.
It’s “Mission Creep” that really goes for the throat, though. It oddly conjures the fluttery rock keyboards of Rush’s “Spirit of the Radio,” but Moore’s bass work is a little leaner and meaner than the FM dial classic. While Goblin is an obvious touchstone, some of its spacier passage likewise recall Lamb Lies Down on Broadway-period Peter Gabriel. Heady stuff, to be sure.
“Toroidal Vortices” takes a different approach as an icy electro stomp with a near Moroder-style approach to synth-pop. But Daft Punk’s Random Access Memories this isn’t. Still, while it’s more in line with Escape Velocity’s icicle drip keyboard melodies, the song definitely posses the most danceable, neo-disco groove of the record.
While Shape Shift offers plenty of fist-pumping moments like “Mission Creep,” Zombi still get plenty creepy when they want to. “Interstellar Package” is a sinister piece that unfurls at a snail’s pace, or, perhaps more appropriately, like a vintage walker slowly making its way to your doorstep. “Diffraction Zone” is another grueling workout in horror score-modeled minimalism. Epic closer “Siberia II” is an especially morose and moody piece that feels like it would perfectly soundtrack the end credits to the grimmest zombie flick the world has yet to see. By the sounds of it, the good guys all die.
So, yes, Zombi has gone back to the fundamentals for Shape Shift, but is it fun? Well, not really. There’s an overwhelming sense of dread dripping from the bulk of the album, like viscera off one of the Undead’s rotted-out cheek bones. This is music for the end of times, a synth-driven warning to run for the fucking hills while you can, preferably with a back pack of unperishables, some headphones and a full charge on your iPhone. If we’re going by old school, slow-moving zombie rules, and presuming that the zombie apocalypse has yet to begin, Shape Shift is giving you a good head start.
– Gregory Adams