the hazel project

Music Reviews

September 22nd, 2008

As most of you know I’m quite the music fan and I had an idea a few months ago to bring a new “Reviews” section to the Hazel Project Blog.

My disclaimer is that I’m reviewing music that appeals to me or has made a personal impact. In other words, the reviews are biased.

The first reason I wanted to begin this section is because it is amazingly difficult for a band to survive in an era where so much music is available all the time. Any help of filtering through the huge amount might be welcomed. Filtering is an endeavor I can do and would like to participate in.

Secondly, knowing about the speed of modern communication flow, maybe some of these biased words could encourage an avid listener, or burgeoning musician, to check some of this music out, and incorporate it into their musical path.

Lastly, I’ve read several music reviews posted on Amazon.com and iTunes that made my throat hurt and my heart sink. I guess for some, reading embittered, scathing, and pedantic reviews are helpful, but I want to avoid that here. Maybe I’m idealistic, but I think reviews can be positive and informative without swimming in humiliation. Of course this only works when coming from the right intention.

INSTALLMENT ONE:

I’m going to start off with the Arizona based ZIA, fronted by Elaine Walker.

ZIA was brought to my attention by a fortunate accident as “Memphis” was googling youtube videos of synthesizer ensembles. He was doing research for our own Electronic collaboration. Instead, we were sidetracked by some microtonal videos uploaded by Walker.

One thing lead to another and a few weeks later I had a cd called “Big Bang” sent to me!

I immediately took to “Big Bang” and listened to it for about three weeks straight.

As I continued my listening, I became interested with the history of ZIA. So, I spent some time on their ziaspace.com website reading lyrics, and production notes piecing together a picture of what this band might be about.

ZIA is a pro-space-rock-outfit that originated in Boston and is named after the Indian glyph on the New Mexico flag; a very cool glyph that centers on the number four. They’ve had rotating members that help with the live show and others who help with the production, sounds, and backing vocals. At one time ZIA had four members who often played in Boston and New York.

I’ve seen several videos on ziaspace.com as well as their myspace page and know that this is definitely a band to see live. They have a complete understanding of the barrier between the electronic musician and audience, which can be a dangerous vibe drain without careful consideration. They address this problem by programming midi drum controllers so they can manually play the show live.  They also use a custom built wall of raw circuit boards, outfitted with triggers. I may misunderstand what they actually use it for, but it certainly looks good and they hit a lot. The videos also show that Walker has a custom built midi controller, that allows her to play, sing, and walk around at the same time.

All of these elements allow ZIA the freedom to interact and give a visual element for the audience to respond to. This is much better than watching four people push buttons with a laptop doing all the work!

The music on “Big Bang” covers a wide range of synthesis types and microtonal scales including the “Bohlen Pierce” scale. A remarkable feat, and true understanding of what the future of electronic music can and will deliver.

The subject matter on this cd ranges from: advocating space exploration to trans-humanism, as well as human relationships. ZIA quite possibly is the only the band composing material suitable for the first off world colony.

The synthesizer sounds are meticulous, either programmed by Walker or Dan Weingartner. Every synthesis type and style is represented from Additive and Subtractive hardware to MAX SP and Granular Software. Another way of saying that a lot of time and thought went into these sounds and how they’re used. This gives ZIA an edge and sound unmistakably their own.

The drum tracks are multi layered and intricate throughout the 12 tracks. Andres Karu reminds me of an expert Roland R8 programmer playing along with an industrial plant stamping out car bodies. Together with Walkers’ own percussive sound design, they weave a massive sonic canvas.

I put together a few descriptions of the songs that really stand out to me and you can actually hear them on ziaspace.com in their entirety.

…I want the movie to end with a big explosion…
_From the movie, “Ed Wood.”


These quotes came to mind while listening to this music over the past few months and they’re meant to be humorous, but the truth is Big Bang pushes the envelope of electronic music in thoughtful and exotic ways.

The song, “Big Bang” is in two parts, the first being the song itself followed by an instrumental section that explores the possibilities of micro-tonality. Let me just say microtonal music deserves multiple listens to gain a reference point. After I got used to the microtonal framework I could hear a broader idea emerge; vast and continued universal expansion. Microtonal Electronic Music and Space become the perfect union of medium and message.

The opening sonically delivers as it’s meant to capture the event that started the universe.  It is a swirling mass of sound design and samples when a treated voice announces, “Time not important, only life important.” This short intro gives way directly into the verse. Here the drum and bass tracks are embellished with percussive noise bursts and industrial sounds. Then the drum track goes into half-time which helps anchor the massive chorus. There’s a lot of detailed sound design here without getting in the way of other elements. This ultimately becomes a ZIA trademark for this cd. A traditional instrument also finds it’s way into the mix of this song. A flute solo played by Gia Cattalucci appears in the middle section. I like how the added element of breath is incorporated here.

I want to say one word to you. Just one word. Plastics.
_From the movie, “The Graduate”

“Plastic” shows walker’s vocal range at its most expressive, while lyrically, and sonically the song explores the topic of trans-humanism or H+. I’m unsure if the human-machine combination is desired or a nightmare in this song. Again ZIA is able to utilize a large portion of the sonic palette with the drum and bass tracks. A synth riff underlines the vocal melody in the chorus, but does so without stepping on it. My favorite part is the bridge, as a humorous synthetic voice keeps asking, “what about this?” Terry Gilliam’s movie “Brazil” comes to mind here. A very surreal vision of the future.

Ah yes. I have my temporary driver’s license - and - my astronaut application form…
_From the Movie, “The Jerk

“Spaceman”,  I would consider the ballad of this collection. It’s a nice downtempo song about a career path as an astronaut. The analog sounds are a throwback to what could be an early NOVA episode. Riffs flourished with delay and chirpy drum machine keep this song appropriately weightless. Personally, I like the synth line in the verse and the solo at the end. I remember listening to Anthony Phillips music that sounded like this. Think of a spacewalk just floating out there with Earth below. This is one of my top three favorites.

If I had another movie quote, it’d go right here.

“Resolution” falls into the life emotion category along with Breath, Spider and Slammin’, all about a relationships. Lyrically this song puts everything on the table. It’s the last effort before the inevitable end. I really like the vocal delivery and drum programming in this song. My favorite part, however, is the call and response between the vocals and the synth arpeggios firing off; oh and of course the electro-noise bursts in the chorus!

Well that wraps up this first installment of the new review section. Again, my goal here is to create a modern day version of liner notes. Something that has been lost a long time in the way we listen and consume music. In addition it’d be great to stimulate discussion about one of my favorite subjects, the future of music, particularly, electronic music. It seems like it could be a nice digression right now.

Thanks for checking in,

Stephen A. Thomas