[25 March 2012]
At this point in their young career, Toronto-based indie rock quartet Zeus have done everything they could reasonably be asked to do. They’ve signed with a well-established label in Arts and Crafts. They’ve toured and made friends with the likes of Belle & Sebastian, Metric, and Broken Social Scene. Their debut full-length, 2010’s Say Us, earned them a nomination for that year’s Polaris Music Prize and, more importantly, a nice little pocket of fans eager to hear whatever they do next. They exude this calming sort of easygoingness when listening to their songs. Their unabashed reverence of classic ‘60s and ‘70s-era rock is at once upbeat and serene when they’re on top of their game. They’re even fairly handsome young dudes. Things have been looking up for them, to say the least.
It should come as no surprise, then, that their follow-up, Busting Visions deviates little from their largely successful formula. Simply put, this sophomore album is the sound of four rock historians picking up their instruments and just playing. It’s apparent right from album opener “Are You Gonna’ Waste My Time?”, with its Neil Young-esque crunchy riffage and ramshackle Americana attitude, that Zeus is the kind of group that actually and truly appreciates being able to make a living playing their songs for whoever wants to listen. There’s an entirely unpretentious air to them, a quality which is surprisingly refreshing coming from a band that’s so indebted to the past.
All the usual monuments are touched upon here. “Let It Go, Don’t Let It Go” floats along with tender melodic lines, sweet vocal harmonies of images such as “dandelions blowing in the breeze”, and light percussion, all in the vein softer Beatles tracks like “In My Life” or “Blackbird”. Similarly, the livelier Beatles-style tracks are represented in the perky keys of “Stop the Train” or the croons and shuffle of “Love in a Game”. “With Eyes Closed” is a spooky-sounding groover with tinges of Led Zeppelin in its laser-sharp guitar soloing, theremin, and lead singer Neil Quin’s pseudo-haunting premonitions of “All will be undone”. Zeus does not try for a minute to pretend that they’re going for anything original with Busting Visions; everything is pleasant, earnest and saccharin. It all sounds very nice.
But that’s really all there is to it. Sure, there is the occasional moment of fleeting emotional impact: highlight “Strong Mind” sounds like label mates Broken Social Scene filtered through flower power, alternating between hushed, slightly pained verses and jubilant, rocking choruses (with xylophones!) that see Quin wailing about how he’ll “dream about” his love. “Bright Brown Opus”, despite only being a 55 second interlude, has all the epic, arena-level joy of a more modern, Fang Island track. Still, for the vast majority of Busting Visions, Zeus seem to be wholly comfortable wading in a type of middle ground, never wishing to offend, never trying to get much of a point across, never wanting to be more than just a group of guys playing a few of their new songs for you.
Depending on how seriously you take your music, this is either going to be a glaring problem or a nonissue entirely. The majority of Zeus serves as Broken Social Scene member Jason Collett’s solo backing band, which makes perfect sense when listening to Visions, since nothing really sticks with you here. For all the sugary melodicism and tight songwriting, it’s difficult to find anything about the album, or Zeus for that matter, that will stand out and touch you in any meaningful way. Now, plenty of people may just be looking for some nifty little tunes and a fun, more modernized stroll down Classic Rock Lane, and Busting Visions will undoubtedly put a smile on those people’s faces for 45 minutes; Zeus’ obvious talent and unshakeable likeability can get them that far alone. Sometimes, though, the nice guys have to take a risk or two if they want to get their proverbial sweetheart. Until that (proverbially) happens, I know I’m going to really like Zeus personally. But I don’t think I can love them just yet.