Review Summary: A genuinely stunning, arresting debut ripe for rediscovery.
At the time, it honestly looked like Open Heart Zoo
was the launching pad for a long, fruitful career filled with critical acclaim. 2002 was a time before post-punk has completed its strangehold on rock music and the shadow of OK Computer
loomed as large as ever - guitars weren't necessarily lingua franca, and ambition wasn't yet deemed uncool. The initial reviews were absolutely glowing and the buzz was building - Open Heart Zoo
was so nailed on for success that when the title track found its way onto a Lexus advert, one national newspaper's music supplement had to explain that the new Radiohead track everybody was raving about was actually by an unknown 19 year old.
That was the void Open Heart Zoo
filled. People still felt betrayed by Kid A
, because electronica was still something of a dirty word, and the hunt was on for another band, or another artist, who would pick up the torch and carry on the good work. Grech put himself in that slot, knowingly. It was actually a little shameless at times, even if it was all tongue-in-cheek - shortly after the release of this album, he put out an internet-only single called "I Am Chromosome" which he himself billed as his attempt to re-write "Paranoid Android".
This is much more than a wide-eyed fan-fic sequel, though - if it were, Grech would be out of his depth, and if anything, he actually seems to be holding his talent back at times. Instead his classical training at the piano, and his deep well of post-millennial angst, also finds itself in thrall to Nine Inch Nails, Jeff Buckley, VAST, The Cure's darkest moments, and the earliest stirrings of the mainstream-friendly brand of post-rock that now belongs to Sigur Ros. It's neurotic and bleak, but it also soars with a grace and beauty that still impress, seven years later.
Indeed, it's that grace that defines the album, once it's been fully digested. From "Tonight" onwards, the album moves into reasonably mellow territory - it's a little disarming after what comes before it, and some might be disappointed by it, but much of the music here is gorgeous. "Only One Listening" stands out at first for having a keyboard line that could almost have come from one of Abba's ballads, but unless the space between "Death of a Loved One" and the bonus track "Ill" is counted, there is not a bad track here. There's not even an average track here.
It's tempting to view that portion of the album as the album proper, because the three songs before it are all stand-alone stunners, as attention-grabbing and swaggering as anything in the genre. "Here It Comes" vaults around wildly between textures and velocities in a way I haven't heard from many album openers - slapping something like this song in the track 1 slot of a debut album is a mark of the sheer confidence that Grech held. That industrial-tinged, electronically propelled song gives way to "Open Heart Zoo", a creeping, insidious waltz time piano ballad that I would seriously consider to be one of the five best songs released in this entire decade. Time seems to stand still whenever this song is on - it sends so many shivers up my spine that I almost spasm, and the final crescendo is bigger and better than any that Mogwai, Godspeed, or Sigur Ros have ever recorded. The trio plays out with "Dali", a track propelled by a pounding riff that could have found its way onto one of Marilyn Manson's better songs. No wonder the hushed, dusky "Tonight" follows these three songs - frankly, you need a breather by this point. The rest of the album is similarly outstanding, but if Grech is going to be remembered in the long term, it'll probably rest on these three tracks.
Elbow and Muse - both of whom debuted at the same time and enjoyed similar early buzz and Radiohead comparisons - have since blazed the trails everybody expected Grech to, and it's a shame, because Open Heart Zoo
remains thrilling to this day - it's a snapshot of a vast potential legacy nearly on a par with Grace
, and the only downside to it is that Grech lived on to disappoint us (commercially, if not artistically). With his debut, he clearly set out from the start to make a bona-fide 5-star classic, and hearing him come as close as he does remains one of the most exciting musical experiences of the decade.