Contemplating the worth of a band like Zomes is a bit like critiquing, say, one of Barnett Newman’s Color Field painting’s — you either get it, or you don’t. The sole creation of ex-Lungfish guitarist and post-rock minimalist guru, Asa Osborne, Zomes has been prevalent since 2008 — though most recently heard on 2012’s Improvisations (Thrill Jockey). Featuring model scales, droning synths and a minimalistic production sense (he recorded 2011’s Earth Grid entirely on cassette tape), his oft-meditative works are the perfect candidates for late-night college radio sessions and/or pre-hipster-era “noise parties”. Remember those? Me neither… But seriously, for an artist known and revered for such willful reiteration (see: entire Lungfish discography), it’s a little refreshing to witness his expansion from proper, one-man act to the freshly minted, Zomes-as-duo association. Showcasing the elastic-textural vocals of Swedish musician/artist, Hanna, Time Was, the new Zomes LP, is both a reiteration of the past and a foray into slightly higher realms of pop accessibility.
Allegedly meeting during a jam-sesh while on tour in Sweden, the two connected, with Hanna quickly positioning herself as a foil for Osborne’s unwavering style. On paper it makes perfect sense. Whereas the “Zomes” intention is to flirt with a certain textural predictability, in turn, Hanna finds her voice more naturally — like intuition funneled through a seemingly stream of consciousness vocal mechanism. This mishmash of ideas is exploited again and again on Time Was, as the two strike an honest balance stylistically but fail to deliver anything much more than fragmentary. Of course, that’s not to suggest the music isn’t more approachable (if not quite as elegant) than previous Zomes records, it is… but it also manages to sound totally thrown together.
Opening cut, “Loveable Heights”, plays as both an introduction to the album and also to the pliable vocal prowess of its newest member. From the fairly straightforward verses, to the almost-Tibetan whispers and squeals of the structureless end — as a pure “instrument”, she does impress (her vocal textures revealing greater depth on subsequent listens). “Monk Bag” and the ensuing/somewhat foreboding, piano-dirge of “Silentium” follow a similar path, delivering elongated tonal meanderings of sound & voice. Admittedly, to the extent that any of these are found engaging is dependent upon one’s uniquely refined taste, so to speak. This isn’t music for the masses — but rather, humble musings of unembellished sound.
Elsewhere, the stark title track, “Time Was” remains notable — if for no other reason than via the use of its slight, but ever so carefully placed synth-squeals, and another suitably confident vocal from Hanna. “Cave Mountain Stream” bookends the LP with the duo’s most fully realized, melodic moment (hey, this song has parts to it!) yet. “Look ahead look ahead / And then you see / The only one / The merciful”, intones a reflective Hanna over a series of sustained key tones. It’s a pretty moment and one that inspires genuine sentiment — rarefied air for an album otherwise fit for disengagement.
Time Was, is an album that puts Zomes at a minor crossroads. While there’s obvious potential in the Osborne-Hannah pairing, this ain’t some kind of wild, Traveling Wilbury’s collaboration, where the weight of expectation met sheer talent and spat out a winning record (at least their first one!). Okay, maybe that’s unfair. Luckily for Osborne, his creations are but tiny post-rock experiments that aim for subtlety – not far reaching classic-pop. He’s succeeded before (Earth Grid) and to an extent, does so here — albeit in brief, foreshadowed glimpses of what could be. Ever so slightly, Osborne seems to be moving away from the wholly obscure, to a level of lo-fi minimalism more befitting of say, your average human. Hanna’s beguiling vocals certainly help that cause… if that is indeed… “The” cause. You never know. Given his reputation for the avant-garde, the next Zomes record could amount to an endless drum loop, topped with dis-harmonic keystrokes — as heard through the hole of a lone Edison phonograph. Hmm, now that actually sounds a little more interesting!