By Dave Thompson
Considering how little success they enjoyed throughout their lifetime (it took three years to get a second hit single, by which time the band had split up), The Zombies have seldom wanted for either critical or fan acclaim.It is a rare “best albums” poll that does not slip 1968’s Odessey And Oracle into its upper echelons; a reformed incarnation of the band has been touring now for what feels like years; and, of course, there’s the little matter of their induction this year into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. An honor, incidentally, that is generally regarded as horribly overdue.
We will not pause to debate what it is about these perennial under-achievers that renders them such a priceless posthumous jewel today (although Colin Blunstone’s near-perfect vocal certainly plays a role in that); nor will we wonder why keyboard player Rod Argent’s eponymous band now feels far more forgotten than the Zombies, despite being so many times more successful.(Although the absence of Colin Blunstone… etc).
What is undeniable is, ever since the Zombie Heaven box set restored their entire studio catalog to the shelves back in 1997, itself meeting a groundswell of demand that had been flickering since the mid-1980s, the Zombies have risen to rank alongside the cream of the British sixties pack - and, in some instances, surpassed it.
There is, consequently, no shortage of ways in which to get your Zombie fix today, a bigger-than-bumper crop of comps and reissues swelling the Z section in the record store to almost Zappaesque proportions.
But still it’s difficult not to get excited about The Complete Studio Recordings (Varese Sarabande), a smart black-and-silver box set that does indeed do all that it says on the tin.The group’s first (the US Parrot’s She’s Not There/Tell Her No) and second (Odessey) albums are joined by two compilations, I Love Her and RIP (a Record Store Day exclusive back in 2015), plus the newly compiled Oddities and Extras, rounding up everything that didn’t make it onto anything else, at least in terms of songs.Those out-takes, alternates, BBC sessions and so forth that have served as bonus tracks elsewhere in the catalog are absent here; so are mono and/or stereo mixes of songs that are here presented in one or the other.
Of them all, it is Odessey and Oracle that will grab the most attention, as it almost always has.Indeed, considering how few people bought this album at the time, it’s sobering to imagine how many have picked it up since. There may or may not be a chart that tabulates the best-selling flop LPs of all time, but if there is, the Zombies’ farewell is surely up there with SF Sorrow, Village Green Preservation Society and the Velvet Underground catalog among the albums that nobody wanted until everyone did.
And rightfully so, because - like those others - it’s a wonderful record, all engaging harmony and mellifluous melody, diverting imagery and eccentric pop, and it winds up with, contrarily, one of the biggest hits of the band’s entire career, the ageless “Time of the Season.” But do not dwell on that one album alone.It might well be the closest thing to perfection, but the remainder of the catalog bristles too with treasures, with RIP in particular offering tantalising glimpses into what night have been.
Originally intended for release in 1969, R.I.P. is another of the all-time Great Lost Albums of the sixties.No matter that half of it comprised out-takes from 1964-65, while the rest was the more recent work of Rod Argent and Chris White alone.Still it stands as a proud successor to Odessey, with the six “new” songs at least equal to that album’s majesty, and lacking only Colin Blunstone’s vocals to send it soaring higher.The out-takes, by their very nature, should be weaker, but they’re not, and the closing “Walking in the Sun,” which does feature a newly taped Blunstone vocal, is an all-time Zombies high.
If you don’t have a healthy Zombies colection, this is the box for you.And if you do, you can never have too many permutations.
One of the most refreshing side effects of the so-called vinyl arrival is the arrival, at last, of vinyl versions of old CD favorites.Indeed, one of the most popular internet sports of recent years has been to compile a list of the CDs that you most want to see given a vinyl debut, just as we used to play the same game in reverse when CDs were new and exciting.
At the same time, there is something extraordinarily sobering about celebrating the twentieth, or even twenty-fifth anniversary reissue of an album - not because the albums themselves don’t deserve to be recognized, but because those of us who can still recall the precise time and place when the album was released suddenly realize that what we think of as “a few years ago” was actually a long time.
New this month, a quarter of a century after it first appeared, is Jewel’s Pieces of You (Craft).In truth, this isn’t strictly its first time on wax - there was an LP version back in the day, both on black and clear vinyl, but prices for both have skyrocketed over the years, with little change out of $200 awaiting purchasers of an NM clear copy.
Part of the attraction for collectors is the presence of five bonus tracks that were absent from the CD - the entire fourth side of the vinyl was dedicated to this material, and Craft’s masterful reissue preserves this running order.As for the music, it’s the same Pieces of You that you presumably have cared so much for over the past quarter century, and the reissue will not disappoint you.
A little younger, but only a little, is Massive Attack’s Mezzanine, celebrating its twentieth bithday with an expanded three LP box set (EMI/Virgin). Packaged in the same kind of heat-sensitive material that graced the band’s singles box set way back when, Mezzanine struggles to be acclaimed Massive’s finest album, simply because Blue Lines hogged that honor long ago.But it’s certainly their second best and, in terms of darkness, weight and atmosphere, there’s very few albums of that particular age that can come even close to its beetle-clad beauty.
Remastered, and spread across the first three sides of vinyl, the original album retains all that and more, but the real meat here is over sides four to six.There, almost the entire set is revealed through the eyes of the Mad Professor, remixer of such renown that simply seeing his name attached to a project means it’s going to be better than anything else you’ve heard today.
He was no stranger to Massive at the time, having remixed the preceding Protection for release, and been strewn across a few singles and b-sides, too.But just as Mezzanine showcased Massive at their most majestic,so it would allow the Professor to step beyond reality, too.And the fact that the end results were never released at the time simply adds to their cachet.It’s taken twenty years for anyone to let us hear this.It was worth it.
An instrumental version of Siouxsie and the Banshees’ “Metal Postcard” opens, retitled “Metal Banshee,” and no matter how great the original always was, this vision strips it back to the very heart of the song, that remorseless drum pattern, that stark riff, and rebuilds from there.In terms of “setting a scene,” it’s among the most powerful openers any CD could demand, and if the scene it sets is one of unrelenting dub bleakness, then all the better.
The Professor does not tackle Mezzanine in its entirety, and the absence of “Man Next Door” is certainly a cause for regret.But the soundtrack-only “Wire” joins “Banshee” as a “bonus track,”, and there’s no two ways about it.It’s a stunning, staggering, stupendous achievement, a dub that delves so deep beneath the parameters of the genre that it all but exists as a separate entity.
Finally this month, a quick mention for the latest in Gary Numan’s on-going reissue campaign, and a vinyl return for 1982’s I Assassin.Hailing from the last days of his truly all-conquering phase, the album as a whole is probably best remembered for the hit “We Take Mystery to Bed.”And that is still magnificent.But the rest of the album, too, has aged better than you might expect.
“White Boys and Heroes” remains an intriguing opener, its rhythmic base both echoing contemporary World Music fascinations and predicting later industrial elements.“War Songs” follows that thread, and if contemporary listeners were prone to compare our Electric Friend’s evolving sound to that of Japan, still there is an individuality to both sound and worldview that is unmistakably Numan.A unique vision that he has maintained ever since.