By Rob Hughes
Spirit Animal (2009) saw the Pittsburgh instrumental duo going for a classic British/Italian symphonic prog sound, complete with Mellotron, grinding bass and bombastic refrains. It was grandiose and powerful, like the charging elephant that graced the cover art. Rather than push things further in that direction, Escape Velocity features a stripped-down Zombi—just synths and drums pulsating to a driving beat. It feels more urban and Germanic; at times like a sinister Kraftwerk. Zombi come across as cool masters of technology now; instead of mad lab techs trying to keep a roomful of aging machines alive and in synch. On Escape Velocity, the machines have learned how to run themselves.
The opening title track establishes the setting with its rapid arpeggios and four-on-the-floor kick drum. Suddenly we’re in a Logan’s Run vision of Studio 54, busting a move with the under-30 set. The remaining four tracks vary the BPMs, but use similar elements. Have no fear, though—this is far from an out-and-out space disco album. The human drumming prevents the music from becoming purely robotic. It’s chilly but alluring, and those analogue synthesizer tones are hardwired to tickle one’s pleasure centres.
“Slow Oscillations” flitters around, anchored by a steady beat and a strong melody. “Shrunken Heads” would suit the title sequence for some Italian b-movie. “DE3” flirts with ’80s synth-pop—I can imagine Michael Sadler from Saga, in jumpsuit and moustache, leaping in from stage left and starting to croon along—before establishing itself as a prime Zombi track. “Time of Troubles,” despite the title, is seductive slow jam, ideal for inviting your preferred partner or robot surrogate for a session in the Sex Pod 2000 with controls set to “hypergasm.”
In true retro fashion, it’s a short album. It was smart of them to rein in the track lengths, because the song structures have few peaks and valleys. Seven or eight minutes is enough for the listener to achieve a stable orbit. I imagine that the album would sound great on vinyl; at 33 minutes the LP would allow for some pretty fat grooves. The LP format would also be the best showcase Jeremy Schmidt’s artwork, which appears to be a bang-on homage to the photo-surrealism of Hipgnosis.
If you’re Zombi-curious—fine with some prog but not steeped in the stuff —I’d recommend Surface to Air or Spirit Animal over the shimmering pulse of Escape Velocity. Once you’re attuned to Zombi’s corner of the cosmos, you’ll need to embark on this brief-but-intense voyage.