Who would’ve thought that in 2015 there would be an album of all new material by the Zombies, nearly 50 years after they imploded prior to the release of the baroque pop masterpiece Odessey and Oracle? Sure 2011’s Breathe Out, Breathe In was technically their return to the recording world, but that album was billed as “The Zombies featuring Colin Blunstone & Rod Argent”. Here they make no bones about it: this is a Zombies album through and through. At least that’s what the title would have us believe.
In the decades since their unceremonious dissolution, they’ve achieved a cult-like status thanks to the genius of Odessey and Oracle. Released after their breakup and featuring their best-known single “Time of the Season” (a song which, compared to the rest of the album, is grossly overrated and frankly out of place) that album has gone on to influence countless groups over the years, eventually achieving full-blown masterpiece status. While their earliest singles hinted at a more classically informed compositional style thanks to Argent’s majestic keyboard lines underscoring Blunstone’s choirboy vocals, they barely managed to scratch the surface of what was to come.
While their contemporaries were content to explore blues-based American music, the Zombies were somewhat of an anomaly during the British Invasion. Their early singles were something more delicate, refined and largely at odds with their peers. “The Way I Feel Inside”s largely a cappella format and “She’s Not There”s spooky keyboard soul were light years removed from the more guitar-focused music of their countryman. Forgoing blues-based progressions, these early sides placed the Zombies more in line with the Kinks post-“All Day And All Of The Night” both in compositional approach and lyrical subtlety.
Their biggest creative leap would arrive in the wake of the twin explosions that were Pet Sounds and Sgt. Pepper’s. Released in 1968, a mere four years removed from their first singles, Odessey and Oracle was a revelation from note one. Unfortunately the group had disbanded prior to its release and was largely unable to capitalize on its success. While both Argent and Blunstone would continue on under their own names, neither would reach the heights of their previous partnership, the latter exploring effete pop while the former ventured into progressive rock.
After decades apart and a growing ground swell of critical and artistic praise, recent years have seen the now beloved Zombies regrouping for a handful of live performances. Several of these have since been released commercially, each relying largely on their meager but exceptional back catalogue. 2008 even saw the release of a full live recording of Odessey and Oracle featuring not just Argent and Blunstone, but also original members Chris White and Hugh Grundy.
Now, some eight years later, Argent and Blunstone return under the Zombies moniker with a trio of newcomers. That they felt comfortable enough to bill Still Got That Hunger as a full-fledged Zombies album would give hope to those who didn’t know better. But a quick look at the personnel, the album cover’s bizzare homage to their greatest album and the fact they reprise a track from their golden era (1965’s “I Want You Back Again”) would lead to some trepidation on the part of the listen. Sure the Sonics recently proved the exception to the rule and Dinosaur Jr. has produced some of their best material following their surprise reunion, but these are outliers. And as Hunger proves from its opening moments, it’s a far cry from exceptional.
Unfortunately, Hunger proves to be largely a blues-based affair that has the band sounding more like a second-rate Steely Dan (“And We Were Young Again,” in particular) than the baroque psychedelia of their original recordings. Having abandoned more esoteric arrangements in favor of straightforward progressions and scorching guitar solos, they have essentially erased that which made them a unique and compelling band in the first place. This aside, both Blunstone and Argent ably prove themselves to still be in top form. Blunstone in particular, though his voice has settled into a lower range with age, still possesses an effortlessness that has long made him one of the best, most underrated vocalists of the British Invasion years (just check out his powerhouse performance on “Edge of the Rainbow” for further proof of this).
But all of this together is not enough to make Hunger anything more than a mediocre album by a bunch of clearly talented performers. Opening track “Moving On”, its title alone a declarative statement that this won’t be the Zombies of old, is off-putting for those expecting something along the lines of the crystalline piano arpeggio of “Care of Cell 44”. Part of the blame rests on the shoulders of guitarist Tom Toomey, a new recruit who favors searing electric lead lines over the subtle supporting role of original guitarist Chris White. This approach sees the group sounding like your average bar band.
It’s not a total loss, however, as Argent and Blunstone prove on the gorgeous, mid-tempo jazz ballad “Little One”. Performed as a duo, it echoes their previous collaborations and show what could have been had they not elected to pursue the more bombastic route present on the remainder of the album. So while it is great to have the group relishing in their well-earned praises, Still Got That Hunger proves that some things are better left dead. Further deductions for the dreadful, pandering nostalgia trip that is “New York”.
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