Review Summary: Zach Hill solo work is to Hella as David Lynch is to Steven Spielberg, but that doesn't mean it's good.
Grand, assumptive statements are not the most professional way to go about writing, but I'm going to say it: Zach Hill is one of (if not the most) prolific and talented drummers in contemporary music. His primary project, Hella, developed a new dialect of math rock that thrived on his spastic, off-kilter sense of rhythm accents as well as his hard, pounding style. His drumming in Team Sleep helped redefine the way trip hop works. Instead of molasses-slow beats over trippy, glitchy backgrounds and flaccid singing, Team Sleep developed an alternate style that used post-rock and post-punk to expand what trip hop could be. A huge part of that development was Hill's varied and flavorful drumming. In addition, he has collaborated with many artists that are considered avant garde including Marnie Stern, Rob Crow of Pinback, Chino Moreno of Deftones, and Mick Barr. Now, fans are being presented with Hill's first solo album, Astrological Straits
, a strange, noisy, and psychedelic ride through Hill's wildest ideas.
However, Hill's wildest ideas aren't necessarily beats or drum kit orchestrations (in the past his "trash cymbal" concept of stacking 3-4 torn-up cymbals to get a highly brittle, sharp sound has been romanticized by fans), but are coming from other instruments, and the large-scale arrangement of the album. Sure, the drumming is virtuostic, strange, and interesting, but the other instruments are what separate this album from Hella's later work, which evolved beyond mathy drum and bass tomfoolery to embrace noise-rock and indie more. The vocals on this album are really compressed and monotonous sounding like a strangely spastic drone on top of the drumming. The guitar-work is slightly reminiscent of Spencer Seim's from Hella in that there are a lot of moments of tremolo picking, but here there are strange slides and electronic, microtonal blurs that set this sound apart. In addition, the keyboards and synthesized sounds on this album are various and weird. Knowing how distinctive and odd Hella's new sound is, consider how off-beat the sound of Astrological Straits
is when I claim this analogy: Steven Spielberg is to David Lynch as Hella is to Zach Hill solo work. Sort of like how Toby Driver claimed that his solo work was to develop ideas that were too "out-there" for Kayo Dot, despite the fact that Kayo Dot is one of the most singular acts in music today.
So this album is fuc
king weird and sounds like Hella on mescaline, but does that mean it's any good? Yes, but also no, no, and no. The yes moments come from Hill either embracing pop idioms, or just shredding out on his drum set, instead of getting "experimental." "Dark Art" is possibly the most pop-driven song on the album and succeeds for it. The main synthesizer reprise sounds like a circus melody, and when combined with Hill's vocal wailing and driving 6/8 beat, creates a supercharged anthem that is catchy despite all of the production and songwriting oddities embedded in the song. The next track "Keep Strong and Carry On" also seems a little more traditionally driven, and though the song nicely spirals out of control about midway through, the concluding chaos is made relevant by the minute or two of consonance that preceded it, creating a balanced and entertaining composition. The other type of song that works out on this album are Hill's epic freakouts, that are notably drum-centric, that is, the other instrumentals don't distract from the awesome drumming. "Uhuru," despite the fact that the first half of the song is just a giant drum solo, is really engaging throughout. The solo has a narrative arc that is very listenable and the song as a whole benefits from the same two-faced structure that "Keep Strong and Carry On" employs. The final track on the album, "Astrological Straits," is shaped like a prog epic, and the catchier sections are alternated with challenging, percussive romps. When Hill is on, he's on, producing scintillating tracks that are engaging on both an immediate, visceral level as well as a cerebral, mindfuc
But with any high-risk, high-return situation, when one fails, the results are devastating, and unfortunately, Astrological Straits
fails more than it succeeds. Some tracks are nearly unlistenable. The opener, "Iambic Strays," is like listening to a 12" record played at 45 rpm, with added "noise." There are so many non-functional blips and bleeps on that song, it listens like nails on a chalkboard more than anything. "Toll Road" is another curious track, whose use of circus-like synth is more annoying than effective. A few guitar riffs on the song bring it out of the doldrums, only to be brought down by the horrendous, repetitious bridge at the end of the track. "Stoic Logic," though proud owner of one of the more vicious drum performances on the album, is little more than that, with vocals that just pick away at the luster of the drums. And that's the story of Astrological Straits
; Zach Hill is a talented drummer, with some great ideas, but certain elements of the album just tarnish all of the positives. This album is even unlistenable at moments. For all the new territory it explores, it can't get by on just being creative or experimental, especially when held up against Hill's brilliant work in projects like Hella and Team Sleep. At the end of the day, I'd only recommend this to die hard fans of his previous projects, and even then, really guys?