It’s OK that you’ve probably never heard of Zach Gray and Tom Dobrzanski, but they’re on a fervent, foot-stomping mission to change that. The pair struck a nerve in hometown Vancouver, British Columbia, with their first project, the four-piece Lotus Child. That group achieved a cult following ricocheting between the city’s downtown hipster hives with a particularly innovative and intelligent form of sweaty, swaggering, piano-driven pop. They attracted the attention of Howard Redekopp, the man behind such West Coast heavyweights as Tegan & Sara and the New Pornographers, to produce their impressive full-length Gossip Diet. Then, just as things seemed to really get going for Lotus Child, they disappeared into thin air.
It turns out they weren’t gone; they were at the drawing board. Reinventing themselves as the Zolas after the departures of bassist Peter Carruthers and drummer Miles Bruce, Gray and Dobrzanski have polished their darkly romantic formula to a slick shine on Tic Toc Tic. One gets the sense that they haven’t moved beyond their past so much as they’ve lightened their load, letting their real talent out of its cage to strut and snarl its way down the dark alleys of modern pop.
Tic Toc Tic is packed to the brim with the sound of a band that’s obviously having more fun than ever making music. Opener “You’re Too Cool” plants the Zolas in familiar territory, sparring with the “cold and overstyled” denizens of the scene that birthed them. The song sets the tone for many of the album’s most successful tracks: sarcastic lyrics and driving, catchy piano hooks alternate with choruses featuring Gray’s haunting falsetto. Imagine Radiohead’s “Creep” infused with Vaudevillian brashness and energy in place of Thom Yorke’s existential moaning.
Song after song scrawls out the internal narrative of a quintessential young urbanite complete with whirling, drink-fuelled parties, frank sexual tension and pangs of Nietzschean despair. Whether he finds himself writhing in a state of post-breakup neurosis as on “Marlaina Kamikaze”, fumbling over a bus-ride crush on “You Better Watch Out”, or prowling for vengeful sex on the absolute standout “Cab Driver”, notable for its barnstorming outro, Gray’s bold stylistic moves are matched perfectly to the feel of Dobrzanski’s punchy, expressive piano.
The Vancouver duo sounds best when they’re rolling with the tide of a cynical, sinister energy, moving with reckless abandon and sinking their hooks deep into the listener as on the creepy, closely personal “I’ve Got Leeches” or the day-seizing anthem “No Talking”. They also find time to explore their poppier side, and it is here that Tic Toc Tic‘s wild ride starts to get just a bit bumpy. “The Great Collapse” is weakest when its chorus lets off the accelerator, and “These Days”, the album’s slowest track, is also its least interesting. That’s not to say that the Zolas can’t write an energetic pop ballad, as mid-album selection “Marionettes” illustrates.
Tic Toc Tic closes with a pair of ambitious experiments, each throwing the listener through a series of stylistic loops and changes that push the limits of Gray and Dobrzanski’s songwriting and performing abilities. “Queen of Relax” is by far the better of these two. Oozing with cynicism and self-reflection, it coyly asks “Don’t you think it’s time for a car crash?” before effectively providing one as Gray launches headlong into the song’s searing bridge section. “Pyramid Scheme” is bigger still, and abandons the band’s tightly focused emotional fire in favour of a sprawling, organ-backed, shout-filled extravaganza that disappears in an abrupt puff of sweet, smoky jazz lounge experimentation. The album teeters as much as it rocks, perilously close to biting off way more than it should be able to chew, but ultimately finishes off with the same punch that it manages to deliver over the majority of its length.
The Zolas have leapt to Canadian recognition, landing coverage from MuchMusic, CBC, the Globe and Mail and Exclaim! magazine among others. Such attention is rightfully earned: Tic Toc Tic shows off the dedication of the band’s core members in transforming a quirky local scene project into a hurricane of bittersweet prog-pop energy.