It's taken a while, but the Atlanta, Georgia, trio is starting to live up to their potential.
Sometimes a band can be overshadowed by their peers so quickly that it's easy to forget that some bands need a little more time to develop than others. That's certainly the case with Atlanta trio Zoroaster. As fellow Georgia bands Mastodon, Baroness, and Kylesa have made very significant strides in recent years, each one putting out what could be called a "breakthrough" album, Zoroaster has been bringing up the rear, comparatively speaking. It's not that they haven't been evolving; in fact, their last two albums have been markedly different from each other. Their 2007 debut, Dog Magic, was a rough-around-the-edges blend of doom metal, sludge, and psychedelic rock with a serious tendency to meander, while the 2009 follow-up, Voice of Saturn, was considerably more diverse and polished. It was clear on those records that Zoroaster was indeed on to something: the music could be monolithic, it could be effectively atmospheric, and it could swing like Black Sabbath's Master of Reality, and when all three factors converged, the results were often brilliant. But simply put, the songs just weren't there enough to elevate the band to the same level as the three aforementioned acts.
Their third album, Matador, sets out to get everything right once and for all, and there's no question that all the elements are there for this record to be a modest triumph. First of all, they enlisted the expertise of Chicago-based Sanford Parker, who along with Converge guitarist Kurt Ballou, is the best producer in metal today. Parker has an impeccable ear; his digitally-recorded sound bears an uncanny similarity to the warm tone of analog tape, he can make traditional heavy metal sound absolutely crushing, he's capable of the coolest psychedelic sounds this side of Hawkwind's Dik Mik, and he's on an astonishing run in 2010, having already produced superb releases by Nachtmystium, Yakuza, Twilight, Lair of the Minotaur, Coffinworm, and Dawnbringer. In other words, Sanford Parker brings Zoroaster instant credibility.
Indeed, Parker's magic touch is all over this album, but to their credit the band comes through with some ace material, starting with "D.N.R.", which is not only a sensational opening track, but the single greatest thing Zoroaster has ever done. That undeniable swing by bassist Brent Anderson and drummer Dan Scanlan is quickly in cruise control as guitarist/vocalist Will Fiore drives the tune with a lugubrious rhythm crunch that positively reeks of bongwater. Parker enhances the psych rock feel even more by having Fiore intone in a blitzed-out chant rather than the usual growls, layering and echo enhancing the song even further. It's instantly memorable, with a simple riff and melody that sticks in your ear, exactly the kind of track this band so desperately needed.
After "D.N.R.", the only question that remains is whether or not the threesome can sustain that momentum. Although nothing really leaps out to match that track step for step, the other eight songs are strong, and encouragingly, the material this time around is concise, the majority of songs ranging from three to five and a half minutes in length. The band cranks up the psychedelia on the churning "Ancient Ones", climaxing in a solo break lifted straight off the crazed jams on Hawkwind's Space Ritual. In direct contrast is the straight-ahead garage rock of "Trident", an amalgam of the Stooges and Kyuss that goes for a far more direct approach than anything else on the album, with tambourine and phasers giving it even more of that retro vibe. "Old World" lumbers along at a Sleep-esque pace, while "Black Hole" shifts gears entirely with a black metal-inspired passage that comes from out of nowhere and bowls listeners over.
Matador isn't without its more ordinary moments, as the instrumental jam "Firewater" is a good display of chops and production, but lacks a real hook. That said, there are no real throwaway tracks here. The melodies are largely very strong, Parker's sound is typically fabulous, and for once the band is able to keep their songs from spiraling into 14-minute exercises in tedium. It's not quite the creative leap that Kylesa made a year and a half ago with Static Tensions, but it's definitely a step in the right direction. Zoroaster's fans' patience is slowly being rewarded.