Four years ago, Fold Zandura released Ultraforever with giddy self-confidence. Buried in the liner notes was this pronouncement:
"...and to everyone who thinks they've got Fold-Zan figured out: think again, because believe me brother, we have just begun".
As it turned out, the only prophecy fulfilled by that blurb was the hint of the band's future moniker: Fold Zandura was shortened to Foldzan for 1999's sparsely released EP King Planet. For the past two years, the band has been idled by members' commitments to outside projects. What a shame, because Ultraforever seemed to contain a universe of possibilities beneath its copper cover. Artistically, it is one of the best albums made thus far by any Christian band.
First, a bit of history. Fold Zandura evolved from Mortal, an early '90s Christian industrial band lead by multi-instrumentalists Jyro Xhan (the principal writer) and Jerome Fontamillas. As Mortal they defied the oxymoronic label and cranked out ominous widgets ("Tuesday Assassin", "Miracle Man", "Rift") rivaling those of Trent Reznor's doom factory. But embedded in the assembly line were components of the future Fold Zandura sound. Lavish pop via "Rainlight" and "Jill Sent Me" flickered through the shadows. By 1995 Xhan and Fontamillas had added wild-man drummer Frank Lenz and changed the band name. So clean was the break that after Fold Zandura was conceived, the band members didn't want to discuss Mortal.
The new band's first outing, Re:turn, was spacey guitar rock overlaid with playful electronic doodling. Whereas Mortal's message consisted of railyard scream-preaching, the songs on Re:turn deliberately mingled spiritual intimations with themes of boy-girl romance.
Ultraforever built on that concept, making every aspect of relationships analogous to a broader spiritual reality. The album expresses unquenchable romance, fueled by a vigorous life-force that refuses to be thwarted by temporal setbacks. In the New Testament is a verse that begins, "Unto the pure all things are pure..." and that appears to have been Xhan's guiding principle for this album. The list of inspirations for Ultraforever includes such diverse names as C.S. Lewis, Ernest Hemingway, The Verve, Rachmaninoff, Akira Kurosawa, Walt Disney, Ranma 1/2, and Jennifer Love Hewitt. There seemed to be confidence in the sanctifying power of music towards all things beautiful.
From its opening crescendo, Ultraforever is more like an anime soundtrack than a raved-up praise and worship album. Musically, Ultraforever is a place where the irresistible pop hooks of the '60s British invasion and the techno sensibilities of 21st century J-pop coalesce. Basic punk power-chord guitar and adroit drumming are surrounded on all sides by electronic effects which can only be described as "sci-fi". The result is a whimsical sonic wash that keeps the listener surprised at every turn. When the cymbals explode on "La Futura", it's as if the sexy Asuka Sohryu has taken control of an Evangelion robot ship. But this isn't the realm of RedotPop; it is the kingdom of God (according to Xhan) spilling into the speakers with orgasmic intensity.
The boy-girl/boy-God (or boy-like-girl-to-God) dichotomy permeates this disc. "Please Believe" is a syrupy jangle ballad with the sound of a giant alien ship hovering close by. "Stormy Hill" incorporates an infectious shuffle beat with bending synthesizers and Liverpudlian harmonies. Even when the lyrics describe the failure of relationships, the music sweeps the listener along with unmitigated euphoria. When Xhan sings "I'm hearing music for the first time" ("Mad Into"), the possibility of a new lease on life feels imminent.
Amidst the ear-candy, Xhan is reminiscent of the late G.K. Chesterton, British apologist, poet, playwright, and detective novelist. Chesterton was an orthodox believer, but not of the Falwell type. Life was too grand and mysterious to confine his mind to legalism. Chesterton would routinely thrash skeptics like George Bernard Shaw in public debates then invite his opponent to a nearby pub for a few pints of stout. As Philip Yancey observed, "Chesterton seemed to sense instinctively that a stern prophet will rarely break through to a society full of religion's 'cultured despisers'; he preferred the role of jester" (Christianity Today, September 3, 2001). T.S. Eliot added, "[Chesterton] did more, I think, than any man of his time...to maintain the existence of the important minority in the modern world".
Xhan went a giant leap further. He freely utilized modernity (or post-modernity) as a vehicle to express life more abundant. Even when a personal Devil is encountered, he is dispatched artfully. "Samovar", the best track on Ultraforever, describes the "accuser of the brethren" thus:
"when you were the Santorin you were worshipped as a
I was drawn by the myth of your monolith
like a perfect face is drawn by the scar
and was caught in the pour from a blast in the core
like a super-heated samovar
that's all you are..."
Satan is likened to a volcano whose ash obscures the sun. But this is only temporary; the smoke dissipates and is followed by "Dark Divine", a eucharistic love song that transforms communion with God into tantric terms:
"the blood, my love, my soul mixed in with you
the life I now live you
new wine, the meld, the mix the blue shifting power
the word to the letter, I breathe you in..."
Religious conservatives might blush at the simile, but Chesterton would probably find it rather delightful. At the very least, this is not another benign Jars of Clay record.
Alas, things didn't go well for Fold Zandura after the release of Ultraforever. Their supporting tour was billed with the latest craze in Christian youth circles -- ska music. While the kids clamored for the O.C. Supertones and Five Iron Frenzy, Fold Zandura was heckled for its sci-fi techno-rock. The band members dispersed to assist other artists, ranging from the Lassie Foundation and the Echoing Green to mainstream Christian diva Crystal Lewis. Though dense and conceptual, King Planet backed away from the exuberant excesses of Ultraforever, and was released without major label support. Foldzan's derelict web site is like an abandoned space station. Apart from a chat room, there is little sign of life there.
And so we wonder -- will Foldzan "re:turn" with another project as ambitious and enthralling as Ultraforever? Or was that, like so many landmark albums, a one-time flash in the (copper-coated) pan?