Zaba: A Surreal Concept Album

Zaba is the debut studio album of the band Glass Animals, and was released in 2014. It is also an incredible work of art and a testament to the power of concept albums to create an entire universe inside a single musical space. This album is especially unique in how it pushes the envelope: from the samples used to create the rhythms and flows to the abstract lyricism. The “concept” of this album is fairly loose, and that’s part of what makes it so surreal. It focuses on creating a jungle setting by using rich bass backgrounds and a variety of plucky leads, along with animal samples, such as bird calls, throughout. It accomplishes this effect so well in every single song that it’s almost uncanny: listening to it you almost feel like you’ve entered a parallel dimension, where colors swirl and drums pound from all around you. The drums and pounding rhythms contribute a large part to this feeling, especially on songs such as Wyrd, JDNT, and Psylla. You can’t help but sway to the music; it has an almost hypnotic effect. However, as you’re caught up in the incredible atmosphere of the album, you’ll miss the other unforgettable aspect of it: the surreal lyrics.

Now the lyrics are probably my favorite part, and really sets them apart from other strange bands. Once you start listening, you’ll realize that most of it is well-formatted gibberish. A few sentences of coherent thought, maybe a single linking thread between them, about something vague and shapeless. The magic of this album is getting lost in its universe, and the lyrics are essential to that: they disconnect you from reality; they lull you into different state of mind. Surrealist art often focuses on the subconscious, exploring the dormant world beyond our conscious minds. Often these works use juxtaposition to startle the viewer and contradict their reality, evoking a feeling of uncertainty and creating an atmosphere that simply can’t be described. In much the same way, I think Zaba embraces the surrealist mindset and brings it to the world of music in a startling fashion. The lyrics transcend traditional music and challenge the listener’s reality; the production is hypnotic and unearthly; the singing is soft and seductive; and the jungle atmosphere is so convincing and strange that you’ll get lost and never be able to find your way out. All in all, it’s an incredibly memorable album that has endless replay value, and I highly recommend giving it a listen. It stands alone as a truly atmospheric concept album, and I think it’s a great example of how powerful concept albums are as works of art.

(Image credits: Google Images)

Twenty One Pilots Peaked with Vessel

Somebody has to say it: Twenty One Pilots isn’t as good as they used to be. After listening to their newest album, Trench, I was taken aback by how synthesized and monotonous the band was sounding. The band I loved made cutting-edge music with clever lyrics and interesting instrumentation; this band was boringly consistent with repetitive lyrics and a choppy delivery. I started to wonder what happened; where did they go wrong?

This question brought me back to the best album they’ve ever made: Vessel. Released in 2013, this album features classics such as Ode to Sleep, Guns for Hands, Car Radio, and House of Gold, which show off the genre-pushing ideas the band was capable of. From the almost symphonic layout of Ode to Sleep with it’s grand transitions and build up, to the simple and wholesome House of Gold, featuring an iconic ukulele (which didn’t make it into Trench), the band was unique in almost every way. The lyrics were often clever, and although they could be dark and introspective, they never tried to be edgy; they were sincere. This album brought a large amount of well-deserved attention to the band, and their next studio album was an even bigger success.

Released in 2015, Blurryface gained popularity due to catchy and rhythmic songs like Ride and Stressed Out. As a result, the band entered the mainstream culture and was even played on the radio (ironic when you listen to Fairly Local). At first I couldn’t stop listening, but this album certainly didn’t age as well as Vessel. I noticed it the more I listened: the songs were formulaic. A majority of them featured prominent electronic melodies, edgy lyrics, and stripped down instrumentation. They were pushing the envelope for sure, but in the wrong direction, not to mention the lyrics were much more repetitive than those in Vessel. I wasn’t really upset about Blurryface, just disappointed. I figured they were just trying to appeal to a more mainstream audience and I couldn’t blame them for that. However, by the time they started releasing singles off of Trench, something had gone too far.

These songs were so ridiculously edgy and cliche, it was almost unbearable. From the constant references to death and depression, to the empty critiques of “culture”, you could tell they had lost their original spirit. Most likely, they saw how popular their darker songs on Blurryface were and they ran with it, essentially filling the void of the “edgy” band. In the short-run it’s no big deal, but I guarantee Trench won’t have the same longevity as Vessel: the newer fans of Trench are going to get tired of the edgy vocals and repetition and move on, while the older fans will still be listening to Vessel. Moving forward I’m curious to see where they go; they might prove me right by dropping another repetitive and monotonous album, or maybe they’ll surprise me with a revival of the energy that made them so great. Either way I’ll be keeping an eye out, because at the end of the day, they’re still one of the most interesting bands around.

(Image credits: Google Images)

Kurt Vonnegut: A Different Kind of Fiction

If you haven’t read anything by Kurt Vonnegut, what have you been reading? That might sound bold, but if you’ve read Kurt Vonnegut, you know where I’m coming from. For me, its a combination of his dry and satirical humor and his unique way of presenting a moral that set him apart. In this context I’ll be focusing on three books: Slaughterhouse-five, Cat’s Cradle, and Mother Night, which I all wholeheartedly recommend. This is also the order in which I first read them, and approaching them linearly will hopefully help you follow my train of thought.

I first read Slaughterhouse-five my senior year of high school, outside of my English class, and I ended up finishing it in two days. For a fictional book that combined seemingly mutually exclusive topics such as war, time-travel, and aliens, I wasn’t expecting to like it. To be honest, I only picked it up because I knew it was a classic and that it was frequently referenced in literary culture. However, I was surprised by the unique writing style of Kurt Vonnegut; there is something so genuine and authentic about how he tells a story. He doesn’t seem to care so much about plot holes and accuracy, but more about the overall message of the story, and that was so different than what I was used to (considering intricate books such as The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien). Slaughterhouse-five was especially good at displaying how Kurt Vonnegut uses dry humor to understand humanity in the face of tragedy. A common phrase in the book is “so it goes”, in reference to everything from the end of the universe to the absurd and irrational murder of the protagonist’s companion. At first this sentiment just appears cynical, but after you finish reading you understand what Kurt Vonnegut is really trying to say: in the face of senseless human tragedy, humor is a way to cope with the truth, and to ultimately shift focus to the beautiful parts of existence.

Next I read Cat’s Cradle, and if I thought the plot of Slaughterhouse-five was bizarre, this book took it to another level. The main plot point is the existence of a dangerous material called ice-nine that turns any liquid into ice. However, the story follows a simple protagonist named John and his strange journey that eventually converges with the story of ice-nine. It also features a strange island with an outlawed religion called Bokononism, which is central to the themes of the book. Essentially it is a nihilistic and cynical religion, and Kurt Vonnegut uses it as a punching back to criticize the concept of religion as a whole. In doing so, Vonnegut expands beyond the traditions and beliefs of religion and reveals a human element in understanding life. Through his character development and use of humor, he shows how absurd humanity is, while simultaneously showing how the journey is more important than the destination. Even if everything ends in tragedy, as things often do when people are involved, the story is what teaches us how special it is to be human. This alternative perspective on life is so genuine in Kurt Vonnegut’s writing that you almost forget you were reading fiction.

Last but not least (in fact to many it is Kurt Vonnegut’s best work) I read Mother Night, a story about a spy named Howard W. Campbell, Jr. who works for the U.S. during World War II as a German propaganda radio host. After the war he is put on trial for war crimes, and the book is written as he is living in an Israeli jail. This is the least bizarre of the three books, featuring a pretty straightforward plot and only a few outrageous people and events. This book is also unique in another way, as shown by the first lines of the book:

“This is the only story of mine whose moral I know. I don’t think it’s a marvelous moral; I simply happen to know what it is: We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be.”

Having already read Slaughterhouse-five and Cat’s Cradle, this was a surprise to say the least. I loved Kurt Vonnegut because he didn’t hold your hand and spoon-feed you the moral of the story like other fiction writers, he made you work for it. I can only speculate why he did this, but after I finished reading the book I realized that this was only one of the morals. Perhaps he was just being ironic, because he knew that this wasn’t the full truth. Although this is definitely a lesson from the book, the true moral is revealed in the same way as the other two books: through his authentic characters and ability to draw profound truths from fiction. I don’t want to spoil the ending, so I won’t, but after I finished reading, I had no idea what I felt. The ending was tragic to say the least, but it went deeper than that; it wrestled with concepts of guilt and justice in the most profound way. Similar to Slaughterhouse-five and Cat’s Cradle, he managed to show the complexity of humanity and also challenge our pre-held conceptions of what it means to be alive. It’s a moral that you can’t put into words because it’s so universal that it doesn’t exactly mean one thing. Kurt Vonnegut’s writing almost transcends traditional literature because he offers an entirely new perspective on life. Overall, after reading all three books, I feel as if Kurt Vonnegut is an entirely new kind of fiction: one that leaves the conventions of the genre and instead recognizes what makes it so powerful to begin with. I definitely recommend all three books, and I hope you can see the importance of his writing as I do. As for myself, he’ll always be on my list of favorite authors, and I hope to read more works by him in the future.