Despite the band’s snooze-worthy name, if there’s one thing ZZZZ won’t do, it’s put its listeners to sleep.
It’s much more likely that the moniker ZZZZ was chosen for more cryptic reasons, like the rope-like design that four concurrent ‘Z’s generates, or simply for the fact that they’re too good for “real” names, but chose a name that could actually be pronounced (unlike, say, !!!). This would fit a little bit better with their musical aesthetic, which, in turn, fits nothing much at all. Not your typical four-piece combo, ZZZZ features saxophone, electric keyboards, bass, and drums, which all add up to something that sounds a bit like Morphine, except more hyper. It’s jazz, it’s rock, it’s polka. God knows what it is, but whatever it is, it’s distinctly ZZZZ.
So that’s the good news. The bad news is that, if Palm Reader is any indication, “distinctly ZZZZ” hasn’t quite morphed into something totally appealing just yet.
It’s easy to get hooked on the get-go, as the bouncy, fly-in-the-ear saxophone line of “Assassination Polka” assaults the listener with something that somehow pulls off the rare twofer of being both catchy and ambiguous in its time signature, flitting from 12/8 to 8/8 without so much as batting an eye. Steve Sostak’s sax is infectious and the star of the show whenever it appears, Ellen Bunch’s keyboards do a fantastic job of filling in the gaps, and the rest of the band is tight enough to not fall apart around the ever-changing whims of these two madpersons. It’s all enough of a whirlwind that Sostak and Bunch’s vocals even seem to fit right in, more speaking expressively than actually singing, but energetic enough that melodies don’t really seem necessary.
The formula works brilliantly for all of three minutes. Unfortunately, those three minutes are all the time it will take to discern the problem with the ZZZZ sound: constant repetition.
It feels odd even typing that about this band, but constant repetition truly is the downfall of Palm Reader, even as they transition constantly between musical segments that couldn’t be more different from each other. It’s more a matter of what’s within those segments that grates on the ear—every section of each song is made up of a single measure repeated into the ground until ZZZZ decides to switch to a new section. Sections are repeated throughout a given song (particularly grating: the “Forget It!” refrain of, appropriately, “Forget It”), some sections are catchier than others, but there’s no true sense of development in the transitions. The most accomplished of the math-rockers and jazz musicians know how to build a narrative flow into the intricacies and transitions of their songs, where ZZZZ still sound as though they transition from passage to passage in the name of trying to sound unique; an admirable goal, perhaps, but one that too often results in something that’s either annoying or not unique at all.
Aside from the distracting, pointless song structures, the vocals of Sostak and Bunch grate as the album wears on as well, as they intermingle call-and-response with passages of straight-up gibberish that are kind of cute at first, but from whose tunelessness an occasional respite is necessary. As such, “Ultratumba” achieves the feat of not only having the best title, but being the most enjoyable song on Palm Reader, not least by virtue of its lack of vocals over the course of its six-minute length. The fact that it sounds more than a little bit like creepy circus music doesn’t hurt, either.
The beautifully creepy introduction of album closer “Buncerto” is enough to convince just about anyone that ZZZZ has the potential to produce some great music. Unfortunately, it devolves into the same old shtick as the song wears on, albeit in a more subdued way than the rest of Palm Reader. In the end, it’s as indicative of the appeal and primary flaw of Palm Reader as anything else on the disc—Palm Reader is a collection of interesting musical moments, lazily cobbled together (though played quite well) and driven into the ground. On future releases, ZZZZ would do well to extend the movements of their songs, allowing for some actual melodic or harmonic development. For now, we have a statement of grand potential and little more.