The drummer in popular music is one of the most underappreciated visionaries towards making a forward sound. While it’s true that many remain as the backbone of their prospective group, there are a handful of drummers that stand apart from the rest, and have just as much creative input as say, the main songwriter. As of recently, Jim White (Dirty Three) has provided his free-form expertise to beauties such as Nina Nastasia and Cat Power, while Greg Saunier (Deerhoof) is one of the most driving percussive voices in the indie rock world. But how many drummers have the following, talent, and audacity to put out a solo release? Well, if anyone was going to do it, it was Zach Hill of Hella fame.
His debut solo release, Masculine Drugs, was slightly off-putting, followed by the completely atonal freak-out, Shred Earthship, which was nothing more than a ostentatious 77-minute overload. His 3rd release, Astrological Straits has taken him into a direction that transfers over into the territory where bands like Animal Collective, High Places, and his other project, Hella, have carved out a niche. There is mayhem built around psych drum freakouts, but there is also melody that these songs fall into. Usually a song is built around a melody, but with Hill, it vice-versa. The experiments build upon each other, and create a subconscious melody that moves these songs in a forward direction.
The best example of this is on “Toll Road”, moving at a pace that a BPM counter couldn’t even register, there are hooks built among the vocals and forthright three chord progressions. Sure, it finds itself in a trend of glitches, anarchy, and major tempo changes, but it always finds its way back to a resolution that appeases our ears. The most cohesive song on the record, “Keep Calm and Carry On”, is really the only track available with a logical progression – and that’s part of Astrological Straits’ allure.
There are moments that fall short, though, frankly full of egotistical wanking off behind the kit – but they are few and far between on this record, thankfully. “Street People” is a two-minute bombardment of snare drum and obnoxious electronic tones that provide a terrible evolution into an otherwise fantastic track, “Dark Art”. There are also too many effects warping instrumentals and vocals that would’ve sounded much more endearing had they been built around a natural sound. The vocals can become insipid, and the instrumentals can become passé. C’mon, Les Claypool on your record? It was cool to rock Primus in 1994 with the Lollapalooza crowd, but by using the musician that has become a go to guy for records that have no substance nor songwriting skill. If you want the same bass sound that he was using a decade ago, feel free to enlist him. Zach Hill is known for keeping things fresh, but he also knows how to choose a setback, which can be limiting for his overall sound.
Nearly an entire album itself, the second disc takes advantage of choosing the right musician for the job. “Necromancer” is a half-hour escapade into the world of drum and piano, and Hill enlisted the perfect piano man for the outing. Marco Benevento of the Benevento/Russo Duo is one of the more inventive players as far as melding melody and free-form to a less “free jazz” audience– exactly the vision Hill is going for throughout the duration of Astrological Saints.
If Hill and his protégés were to play to an art-punk, Animal Collective conscious crowd, the man would be a hit. But for those keen on a sense of purpose at all times during a record and stellar songwriting, then turn to the next crate, because this isn’t for you. Hill’s vision and aesthetic are strong on Astrological Straits, but he’s going to have a hard time pitching this to any large-scale audience. The average Hella fan might find it too much, while the avant-garde world will find it too little.