Zammuto - Anchor

The All-American manchild scans the murky depths for signs of life and light.

Additional Info

7.8

ALBUM: Anchor

ARTIST: Zammuto

2014

Alternative

A couple years ago I took a canoe trip down the Cahaba river with a few close friends. We left the city and drove for hours into the wild vastness of the Appalachian woods, everything cast in a beautiful pale viridian. We ran our not-too-difficult river course and, reaching its end, camped that night under the stars. I remember the next day, as we drove and by degrees returned to civilization, the setting sun red and winking behind us, listening to the Books' final record The Way Out. The voice on the record intoned, "And I see. And I see. And I see." Still deep in the afterglow of a pristine weekend and the one-hitter's magic, I remember thinking, "Yeah. I do see, man. And I see." The moment was perfect for the music, or the music was perfect for the moment, and the man at least semi-responsible for both was Nick Zammuto. Whenever I return to his world it's just as strange and new as ever, just as green, and I hesitate at the threshold because I know that the intellect, the light, I'm about to encounter is brighter and broader than my own. We step out of the cave.

After the Books decided to call it quits, Nick Zammuto moved into the Vermont woods, family in tow, built a house and the studio in which Anchor was recorded. Don't expect some rustic idyll a la Bon Iver, however. The man is still as cerebral and future forward as ever, bending instruments, and whatever else he happens to find, to his creative will, pragmatic in the most American sense. (For an example, check out the video to the business-core jammer "IO", in which our star builds a trebuchet from scratch and proceeds to launch disused studio equipment into Vermont airspace.)

Every track here is experimental, to the degree that you can almost smell the theory wafting above each of them like so much chemical smoke rendered by the smug kid at the back of the classroom, Icarus falling down his shirt-front. Nick's having fun, that much is obvious. Never in the course of the record, however, do we get the sense that he's playing for play's sake. Sure, it's smart, but never ironic or smug, and that's beyond refreshing in an age of trends about as significant and detrital as the slap-bracelet (For the record, this reporter loves slap-bracelets).

Naturally, any time a (relatively) well-known and (very) well-respected band decides to hang it up, the constituent members' subsequent projects are held up to the light and scrutinized like a newly-minted Benjamin. Does it look like the others? Why doesn't it look like it used to? Can I take it to the bank? Yes, you can. Myriad similarities skate and glide across the surface here, but in it's dark watery heart Anchor holds it own. Zammuto's penchant for found audio, brilliantly utilized on Lemon of Pink and elsewhere, hasn't waned, though its presence here is certainly lighter. The odd time signatures are here in spades, and that unmistakably Zammuto voice has truly and finally found itself. (Again, check out "IO" and that wild and wonderful vocal. He's obviously having a hell of a time.)

If the inventiveness and ingenuity of Anchor are its heart, its relative lack of cohesion would have to be the record's bum leg. Stylistically, the record jumps and skips, at times jarringly so, even if it laughs all the while. Of course, this is no concept album, but listen after listen I was still wanting for a certain tonal harmony, a compositional logic across the span of the whole. Nonetheless, the closer you get the more you see this is a record of pristine detail, splitting its own harsh light into ray after ray of chromatic warmth. Listen and see for yourself.

"People say I got no soul! But who knows?"

1. Good Graces
We're beginning in familiar territory, cut and cobbled voices fading into simple synthesizer figures, two of the most common Zammuto, and the Books, calling cards. The track begins in a darkly ambient swell before bounding into a bouncy groove remarkably reminiscent of Jose Gonzalez's Junip. Be sure to hang in there till the end. The rhythm disintegrates, the veil parts and we're greeted by a beautifully ethereal vocal courtesy of Daniela Gesundheit. 7.0
2. Great Equator
Dark, Reznoresque synthesizers cradle this mediation on existence, its mutability and eventual end. The polyrhythmic play of Zammuto's band is simply wonderful here, serving as a nicely manic counterpart to Nick's wan, wandering vocals, and that slinky mangled guitar motif serves as a sort of aural metaphor for all those commonly accepted, possibly wrong theories, the equations remaining constant over a shifting history, that Zammuto pines over.7.5
3. Hegemony
A brilliant drum workout more than anything, though the harmonies here are something to behold, the line "Try to make it look like an accident" repeated again and again as if Zammuto were trying to talk himself through the wildnerness of infinite possibility. The rhythmic and temporal play continues via start-stop break beats and the vocals that shimmer with insouciance and sheer melodic invention. 8.0
4. Henry Lee
A take on the traditional folk tune "Young Hunting", most famously covered by Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds on Murder Ballads, but here it gets refracted and cast back across a dark palette of drifting synth, like black curtains blowing in the wind. Zammuto gives us just enough information here to piece together the classic story of lost love and a woman's scorn. 8.2
5. Need Some Sun
Those floating, arhythmic vocals continue, though the rhythm section itself congeals a bit, if only for the span of this track. In lines like, "I'm going to California. Going to see the teacher, the charismatic leader," Zammuto again takes up his perennial concern with clarity, learning and truth. This could be read as a travelogue of sorts, an itinerary for a trip through the soul. The four-on-the-floor beat and hypnotically repeated bass line propels us along a circular path, but you never get the feeling that anyone is simply spinning their wheels. 7.4
6. Don't Be a Tool
Upon first listen of this synthesizer clinic I was immediately reminded of the Japanese studio-wizard Cornelius. Consider this the record's palette cleanser, the cool-down after the marathon sprint of the previous track. Some seriously delicious timbres here, like a sampler platter of fine French mousses. 8.0
7. Electric Ant
Seemingly a fable of sorts designed to warn the listener of the perils of capitalism, technology and work for work's sake. The track is fascinating if only for it's vignette-structuring and the characters who populate them. The found sounds and audio samples continue quite effectively, if much more subtly. 7.5
8. IO
I imagine this is the kind of music the jerks Zammuto warns us about in "Electric Ant" listen to on their multi-block sprints across the city, briefcase and spilling coffee in hand. This may be my personal favorite track, and, considering everything Nick has done previously, his strangest to date. The textures, the tones, the timbres, they're all cold, calculated and fun as hell to hear. That opening synth! That crunch! Certainly, this would have to be most ironic track on the record, and probably for that very reason it's the most simply blissful. Possibly Nick Zammuto's finest and wonderfully wild vocal performance to date. Business-core at its finest. 8.7
9. Stop Counting
An aptly titled exercise in rhythmic frustration, and Anchor's nadir. The reverb-laden percussion, the piano chords dropping ever-so-ominously, the wafting synth pads—we've heard it all before6.0
10. Sinker
The spotlight shines again on the rhythm section here, Anchor's star and MVP. Waves of distorted bass wash on deck as brightly clean guitar chords strike like lightning above them, but all the while the drummer keeps us...uh, anchored. This could be considered a great track by a lesser act, but we know that Zammuto can do better. 6.5
11. Your Time
The mood only darkens as all the anxieties scurrying beneath the waves come up with teeth and all. Daniela Gesundheit (what a name!) returns and proves the saving maiden for a record's second half that at times seemed ready to curl up catatonic on the floor. Beautifully earnest in a way that only Nick Zammuto could pull off, this track serves as the landing after the bumpy ride, a nice and soft, and weirdly reassuring, return to earth. 7.4
Written by Daniel DeVaughn
Daniel DeVaughn is the executive director of the arts journal Cumulus, as well as the co-curator of The Daily Dive, an online forum for the exchange of new music and visual art.

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