It’s probably fair to suggest that both Eli Roth and Zombi would be nothing without the ’70s. It’s probably fair, even, to suggest that both the director of Hostel and the instrumental-rock duo from Chicago by way of Pittsburgh would be nothing without a very specific part of the ’70s: grindhouse cinema. The band took its name from hometown hero George A. Romero’s Dawn of the Dead, a rampaging-cannibal flick that was rechristened Zombi for its Italian release in 1978. And according to keyboardist/bassist Steve Moore, the band drew its initial musical inspiration from Goblin, the Italian prog act that recorded the soundtrack for Zombi as well as many of Romero collaborator Dario Argento’s best-known films, such as 1975’s Profundo Rosso and 1977’s Suspiria.
Still, Zombi is nobody’s tribute act. The duo’s first widely available full-length, 2004’s Cosmos, was, it’s true, strongly reminiscent of Goblin at its creepy-groovy peak—a period that, despite the band’s outsized legend, lasted for only a couple of movies. But Cosmos incorporated other fright-flick sounds, too. For starters, there was the Transylvanian minimalism of Mike Oldfield’s Tubular Bells, music used to infamous effect in The Exorcist. There was also the slaughterhouse pop of Fabio Frizzi’s synth scores, the grimmest—and therefore best—of which is the soundtrack to Zombi 2, Lucio Fulci’s sequel to, yes, Zombi. Obsessed? Yes. But not single-minded: On Cosmos, Moore and drummer/keyboardist A.E. Paterra embraced the idea of ’70s-horror-movie music, not any one band or composer.
New full-length Surface to Air, by contrast, is much less of a soundtrack in search of a film. If Cosmos suggests Moore and Paterra jamming in front of looped dailies, then Surface summons imagery of the band sweating it out in someone’s garage, trying to make music that stands on its own. Perhaps the best example of this is “Night Rhythms,” Surface’s multisectioned finale. Whereas Cosmos’ tunes tend to revolve around a single motif—and rarely last longer than it would take to disembowel a horny teenager—this track packs a decade’s worth of progressive rock into its 18-minute running time. It’s the stuff of tangerine dreams—not to mention topographic oceans, pawn hearts, and the rest of it.
That’s not to say Surface abandons Cosmos’ don’t-go-in-the-basement vibe, which is the essence of Zombi’s appeal. There’s plenty of sonic dread on the new disc—plenty of heart-quickening beats and hockey-mask synth. The main difference between Surface and what came before it is that the songwriting, while not exactly songwriterly per se, allows the band time to do exactly what a good ’70s horror flick does: build suspense. “Challenger Deep,” the two-movement opener, divides Zombi’s aesthetic into bass-heavy postpunk and racing-scene-street funk. And the title track breaks up the usual electronic swirl with some honest-to-goodness devil’s music: Its chorus screams Sabbath Bloody Sabbath, inasmuch as a keyboard riff can scream anything.
Moore claims that he and Paterra curtailed the kitsch this time around, which may be his way of distancing himself from what he perceives as the borrowed zeitgeist of Roth, The Hills Have Eyes remake man Alexandre Aja, and the rest of the neo-horror crowd. Perhaps he should listen to Wes Craven: In a recent Newsweek, the man who made the original 1977 version of The Hills Have Eyes suggests that the War on Terror is feeding new-millennium horror in much the same way that ’Nam fed the genre back in the day—a phenomenon that horror theoretician Robin Wood has called the “return of the repressed.”
Surface’s title may or may not be a response to 9/11-related warfare, but its music definitely betrays a desire to play in the present tense. The album’s not as much fun as Cosmos, that’s for sure. Yet whatever it sacrifices in terms of grainy-film-stock nostalgia, it more than makes up for with invention and engagement with the world outside of the cinema. It’s probably fair to suggest that any record that draws its most tuneful cut from a Brubeck-gone-bad chord progression has something distinctive to say about music history. And if Craven is right, it’s probably fair to suggest that Surface to Air has something distinctive to say about history history, as well.
San Francisco’s Om is also informed by the dark side of the ’70s—though that doesn’t necessarily separate it from the current heavy-rock pack as much as it does Zombi. The duo, which consists of bassist/vocalist Al Cisneros and drummer Chris Hakius, is perhaps best known as the rhythm section of Sleep, a stoner-riffic trio that based much of its sound on Black Sabbath’s first four albums. Cisneros has even called Sabbath (another act named after an Italian horror flick) “the institution.” But unlike the dudes in hipster acts such as the Sword and Wolfmother, he and Hakius have always used Ozzy & Co. merely as a point of departure. Sleep’s swan song, 1999’s Jerusalem, transformed a handful of Iommi riffs into a single hourlong drone. Though not as conceptually extreme, Om’s output is similarly expansive.
The band’s three-song debut, last year’s Variations on a Theme, was chock full of eccentricities, chief among them Cisneros’ voice. In Sleep, the singer was predictably gruff, chanting above the din in a style appropriate to the death metal of its day. Beginning with Variations, his vocals have been delivered with little trace of affectation, something that few in metal can boast. His singing hews closely to riffs, creating a buzz ’n’ thrum that’s more folk than rock. And because Sleep producer Billy Anderson, the console man on both Om albums, situates Cisneros’ singing above everything else in the mix, listeners can actually make out the lyrics—another rarity in modern metal.
By and large, the two songs on Om’s second full-length, Conference of the Birds—a title borrowed from Dave Holland’s ’70s free-jazz classic—offer mere variations on Variations. Cisneros seems to write the same bass line over and over again, which works because, hey, it’s a really good bass line. Loopy without being static, Cisneros’ playing twists and winds and folds back on itself, making Om’s five songs to date seem less like distinctive compositions than details from a larger work. The effect is of a band always playing somewhere—probably on a mountaintop or near something monolithic. Anderson simply captures the sound in 15-to-20-minute chunks.
This sense of everlasting activity is underscored by the lyrics. He often begins verses with a verb in medias res—“rides,” “travels,” “atones”—and his hippie-spiritual verbiage would hardly sound odd coming from the likes of Pharoah Sanders or Alice Coltrane. On the Sabbath-esque “Flight of the Eagle,” he sings, “Fielded onto cohesion, geometric altar reflect the new day.” On the Pink Floyd–ian “At Giza,” he tailgates instrumental breaks with “and” after “and”: “And lighten upon day,” “And travels under twin sun rays,” and so forth.
Cisneros also mentions Lebanon repeatedly, which is less pointed than it might seem. His impressionistic references are probably just a sign of our fundamentalist-vs.-fundamentalist times—an indication of just how much the Arab world has seeped into our collective consciousness. Return of the repressed? Not exactly.
There’s no violence in Cisneros’ words, and even the soft-to-loud surge halfway through “At Giza” has a comforting effect. In horror-theory terms, that’s probably a failure. But even Ozzy used to flash a peace sign every once in a while. Until we get a doom-metal disc that’s as malignant as our doom-taunting age, Cisneros and Hakius’ conference of doves will have to suffice.CP
Zombi performs at 8:30 p.m. Sunday, April 30, at the Black Cat, 1811 14th St. NW. For more information, call (202) 667-7960.