My love of underground music was more or less born when somebody showed me Blackhouse Records in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho. The brainchild of Idaho’s hardcore punk outfit Scatterbox, Blackhouse has been on a tear for the last few years, breaking into hip-hop and heavy music with equal enthusiasm. They’ve re-released Ras Kass’ critical opus, “Soul On Ice”. They’ve scored vinyl deals with rappers Slug Christ and Lord Narf from Atlanta’s own Awful Records. They’ve put out material from upcoming punk and metal talents like The Drip and Absvrdist.
Their hot streak is roaring into February with their latest Washington signee, Zan. Zan originally formed in 2000, and after honing their craft and adding two more members, the five-piece released a phenomenal album in 2014, “√-1”, on Bandcamp. They tracked it at Birdhouse Squirrel, Chris Tanaka Canwell mixed it, and Audiosiege handled the mastering.Now, at last, thanks to Blackhouse, that album is now available at most major digital retailers, giving me a convenient excuse to write about why I love “√-1” so much, and why you should be hyped about Zan’s forthcoming second LP.
If I had to describe Zan’s take on heavy music with just one word, I’d open my mouth, close it, look at the ceiling for a minute, and then tell you, “Chaotic.” That doesn’t describe everything about them, but it’s not a bad place to start. They play heavy music with unpredictable time signature changes that are designed to throw you off-kilter, placing them in the same general movement of math metal as Meshuggah and The Dillinger Escape Plan, and Washington contemporaries Czar, Rot Monger, and Faus.
There’s a spectrum in that movement, of course, and Zan is a fierce reminder not to be confident about placing bands in boxes when it comes to genre in the Internet age. You’re going to be reminded of all of the bands I just mentioned. But you’re also going to be reminded of Slipknot, just a little bit, along with ’90s death metal and grindcore. These guys don’t go in for breakdowns. They don’t confine their cacophony to two-minute bursts like a lot of other extreme metal bands. They challenge themselves to write 3-6 minute songs with constant chugging and blastbeating, and finding ways to keep it interesting while keeping their wall of noise tall, thick, and loud as hell.
As far as I’m concerned, they knock it out of the park.
It all begins with the opening track, and my personal favorite, “Punintentional”. They have the kindness to give you a second to gasp before the plunge, with a swift fluttering drum fill. A second later, David Huber, Chase McClendon, and Ryan Johnson turn on their amps and start shredding. I’m going to be forthright and tell you that I don’t have the technical knowledge to track the patterns of these rhythms, how they change, and, most importantly, how on earth this band keeps perfectly synchronized while sounding so fast, loose, and mean. All I know is that there’s never a dull moment. At 0:57, a series of muscular grooves bursts into a series of neck-snapping notes, flirting with hardcore and then throwing it into a meat grinder and jumping back into the grooves with a vengeance. It all happens in 45 seconds and it’s barely a fifth of the song. It does not relent. This whole album barely takes a breath, lurching from one savage section to another.
After 6 skullcrushing songs, we arrive at the title track, a glitchy 30-second audio clip, and then a jazzy series of notes make you wonder whether the album’s taking a minute to smell the roses. Joke’s on us. We’ve arrived at “The Drift”. Jason bashes his drums in a completely different beat, followed promptly by David, Chase, and Ryan, throwing us back into the fray. Their musicianship isn’t just proficient; it’s athletic. Whether they’re chasing each other up and down chord progressions in the middle of “Lecherous”, or letting the punk side of grindcore propel them forward on “Bill, Helen, and the Big Easy”, they keep finding new ways to keep the assault on your ears fast and fresh. Just look at how they sprint through “Eventual Inevitability” (6 minutes, 22 seconds). From Jason’s frenetic drumming at the beginning, to the dual guitar attack, shifting gears at the drop of a hat, to the undulating bass in the final minute and a half, it’s an exercise in sustained, orchestrated brutality.
Ace Michel, along with David and Chase, rise to the occasion with a wide range of vocals. It’s a pleasure listening to their different voices tag each other in and out as the album goes by. When you have to reckon with the changes in voice, matching the changes in the music, the songs start to feel downright schizophrenic. In “Punintentional”, we hear Ace and David growl, “I’m a setup and I’m a punchline,” with gravelly spite, before Ace yelps frantically, “Stop me if you’re heard this one before”, as the rhythm section spasms behind him. There’s some low, murky snarling at the end of “Eventual Inevitability” that wouldn’t sound out of the place in a slam metal band. If you haven’t heard Ace’s work with Blackhouse heavyhitter Infrablaster, by the way, you gotta check out what he can do.
He’s got some great lines to work with on this album. Zan’s songwriting reflects their approach to extreme metal in general– catch the listener off guard and have more than a little fun doing it. The sarcastic, half-manic joketelling in “Punintentional” immediately yields to “Usul”, a song about Frank Herbert’s Dune series and how “he who controls Arrakis / Controls the spice / there fore controls / the universe and its commerce / from Caladan to Geidi Prime”. We get spiteful lovers on “Bill, Helen, and the Big Easy”, and despair about the human condition on “Eventual Inevitability”. Heck, we even get “Asshole Freebird Guy”, devoted to an anonymous showgoer to whom Ace growls, in my favorite lines on the album, “Thank you for the additional / Two cents you added / To the five bucks you paid / To get in so we can give you / A soundtrack to stand outside / And smoke cigarettes to.” Having seen my share of house shows, I laughed uproariously.
I’m always gonna tell you to keep an eye on Blackhouse Records, and I’m gonna repeat myself to make sure you and the metalheads in your life get your hands on this rerelease, and get excited for that second LP, coming soon. These guys are as mischievous as they are ferocious, and they have the musical chops to leave their mark on 21st-century noise. All those cookie-cutter tech death bands better watch out, because Zan’s coming for the crown.