It’s crazy to think that of all the bands who made the airwaves sound like a frat house in the early 2000s, that California rap/rock punks Zebrahead are one of those still going strong. In 2000, when they released their seminal Playmate of the Year, it was cool to be juvenile. In a sea of moshpit wannabes and backwards-worn red hats, there was Zebrahead; who unlike some of their contemporaries never took themselves too seriously. They were loud, they liked punk, they liked metal and they liked hip hop. They liked to sing about girls and having fun and it showed in their music. Playmate of the Year, with all of its hooks, catchy goodness and penchant for delinquent humour was in fact, a staple of my juvenile adolescence. The single, about the joys of receiving your copy of Playboy magazine, so you can “make things milky clear”, was one of the many songs blasted constantly from the rooftops of my fraternity house across campus in what can only be described as, “we were dickheads”.
It’s been almost 20 years since and while the major label support may have long gone and many of Zebrahead’s contemporaries are probably in Maroon 5 cover bands, they march on. Often funding and self releasing albums, its clear that they love what they do. Brain Invaders, their 13th(!) studio album doesn’t stray too far from the metal-heavy chugga chugga riffs, soaring choral harmonies and the occasionally rap/rock interlude, but the album is Zebrahead to a ‘T’. Brain Invaders is an absolute blast.
From the opening heavy metal soaked “When Both Sides Suck, We’re All Winners”, the Zebrahead mantra is clear; get on board or get out of our way. Remarkably, vocalist Ali Tabatabaee sounds better than ever, and after the departure of co-vocalist Justin Mauriello and two decades of it mic work, hasn’t lost a step. Whether he’s rapping the verse to “I Won’t Let You Down” or harmonizing choruses in the anthemic “You Don’t Know Anything About Me”, he sounds like he just finished recording vocals back in 2000. Matty Lewis, who replaced Mauriello in 2004, took some time to settle in but he’s completely in-sync with Tabatabaee now. They tap into Blink 182/Sum 41 territory in the pop punk heavy “We’re Not Alright” and get a little introspective in the melancholic punk hip-hop hybrid song “Take a Deep Breath (And Go Fuck Yourself)”. There is rarely a moment the album isn’t drenched in catchy melodic punk sing-a-longs, and there isn’t much time to slow down as the album pummels its way through the 14 tracks with high energy purpose.
So what’s not so great about Brain Invaders? Well, if you’re looking for intellectually stimulating music than you’re probably looking in the wrong place. But one can argue if you’re looking for it with Zebrahead then maybe there’s something wrong with you. It ain’t Rhodes Scholar stuff here, and if you’re not really into never becoming an adult, then you’re probably not going to find much joy with Brain Invaders. And yes, the bong-noises of “Up in Smoke” are a little superfluous, and outside of the Zebrahead formula, there isn’t too much else. But that’s what makes this album great.
In a sea awash with bands who take themselves too seriously, rock music can often seem so very unfun. Zebrahead are the remedy for that malaise. Frat rock may have had its day in the sun, but thanks to Zebrahead it continues to party just below the surface, not-so-quietly
Crossed Keys – Saviors
Saviors shows the work of well-seasoned musicians finding new energy in old sounds
Philadelphia’s Crossed Keys are an interesting intersection between melodic hardcore and punk, taking an earnest approach to the sound that made its way from the underground in the late 90s and early 2000s. This relatively new outfit is the result of Kid Dynamite and Samiam in a blender- in the best way possible. The Kid Dynamite influence may be a given since Crossed Eyes features KD’s drummer Dave Wagenschutz, but the band’s pedigree also includes members of bands like Zolof the Rock & Roll Destroyer and The Curse, all backing the melancholic vocal work of frontman Joshua Alvarez (Halo of Snakes). So while Crossed Keys are somewhat new, its members have been cutting their teeth within their respective circles for years, and their new EP Saviors shows the work of well-seasoned musicians finding new energy in old sounds.
Saviors is backboned by the furious urgency and energy that Kid Dynamite showed through their history, but while Jason Shevchuk’s vocals were beautifully abrasive, Alvarez takes a more restrained, wistful approach to singing. Songs like the opening “Times of Grace” are musically up-tempo percussions and razor-sharp guitars, but are buoyed by Alvarez’s more melodic vocals. His vocals rest at a good place between Samiam’s Jason Beebout and that NYHC tone exhibited by bands like Token Entry and Grey Area. In songs like “R.J.A” and the closing title track, Crossed Keys find more success with their brand of blistering speed meets harmony- slowing down only for the kind of melancholic punk that made Samiam a noted name. While much of Saviors is built on pace, it wasn’t always this way for the band. In fact, their 2017 EP, I’m Just Happy That You’re Here, leans closer to Samiam than it does to Kid Dynamite (the song “Jeff Pelly vs. The Empire” is particularly fantastic), so there’s been an uptick of urgency with Saviors.
For fans of any of the aforementioned bands here, there is plenty to like with Crossed Keys and plenty to like in Saviors. It’s succinct, to the point, but filled with ample reflection and exploration that gives the EP depth and resonance. Any band that has found influence from Kid Dynamite is most certainly OK by us (this site is named after a KD song after all), but Crossed Keys does more than just tip their cap. This one’s a really good one, and worth your time.
Pine – Pine
Pine’s debut album is a kind of hypnotic melancholia
Where did Ottawa’s Pine come from? It’s a question worth asking after listening to their painfully gorgeous self-titled debut album. Pine use the phrase “doom and gloom never sounded so sweet” to describe their sound, and true to that, this 11-track outing is filled with the kind of hypnotic melancholia that became the playbook for a great many Midwestern emo bands that emerged in the late 90s/early 2000s. The biggest difference here is that while Pine have the heartbreak down pat, their musical sense of loss is lifted slightly by the airy, more wistful sounds of their guitar-strewn songs. Sure, there’s a lot that sounds like a great Mineral record or a Gloria Record album, but there’s also traces of Florida indie/emo band The Rocking Horse Winner and at times, bands like Rainer Maria.
Pine are buoyed by the great vocal work of Darlene Deschamps. Her voice soars through tracks like “Memento” and the terrific “Lusk”. The latter in particular is a great example of how Pine lull you into a sense of calm before it explodes in a collage of symphonic distortion and post-rock twinkling. In “Sunder” they ascend to louder, more expansive sounds. The song is a great combination of thick, fuzzy guitars, mid-tempo percussion work, and that pained vocal delivery that gives the song an extra punch in the guts.
The album took an impressive 2 years to finish, and you can hear the trials and tribulations of that gestation period through the songs. There’s pain, sadness, anger and frustration in songs like the intro “Within You” and the more new emo-esque “Swollen”, but also beauty, and as the album concludes, a sense of incredible catharsis. The record SOUNDS great too, with production values (by a production team that includes Will Yip, who has helmed records by Circa Survive, Braid, Saosin, and the Bouncing Souls to name a few) adding to the grand cinematic finish of the record.
For those who love what emo was in the mid to late 90s will find much to like about Pine just as much as those who like Explosions in the Sky and their post-rock brethren. Pine have been crafting their sound over the last few years and while their previous EP Pillow Talk showed a solid foundation, this new self-titled record is the work of a band close to the height of their abilities. Moving, beautiful, and littered with life’s roller coaster of emotions as songs, Pine is definitely recommended listening.