Friday, January 31, 2003

ZWAN: Mary Star of the Sea

Some people don’t like Billy Corgan. Some people downright loathe him, right down to his whiney voice and bald head and holier-than-thou attitude. I do not count myself among these people, but I also recognize his fallibility.

The Smashing Pumpkins were not a true band, entirely. Fans and critics of the group were fully aware that Billy Corgan called the shots. He was the creative force behind the Pumpkins, and even though it was clear that Jimmy, James, and D’arcy contributed to the sound, everyone knew that the rest of the group answered to Billy. This being said, any criticisms of the band could be leveled almost entirely against him: Billy was the band.

Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness was an anthemic masterpiece of thought, power, and emotion, but Corgan seemed to fall into a creative crisis after it was released. Over the next two albums, Adore and Machina: The Machines of God, he struggled to find the next best thing, dabbling in electronic sounds, dance beats, and anguish-ridden ballads that weren’t as inspiring as Corgan wanted us to believe. “Infinite Sadness” may have been a more appropriate label for the declining Pumpkins than he had originally planned. The music wasn’t entirely bleak, with notable exceptions like “Perfect” and “Stand Inside Your Love,” but it was much more inaccessible and its artistic, over-produced, psychedelic ramblings scared away a great deal of the Pumpkins’ older fans.

I thoroughly enjoyed the last two Smashing Pumpkins albums, but for me, there was always something missing. Some songs dragged, some songs I skipped whenever I could, but mostly, there was a feeling of coldness to the music. There was a feeling of despair, anguish, confusion and frustration that came through on so many of those songs that in many ways reflected Corgan’s insecurities about himself, his creative process, and the direction of his career.

When the Smashing Pumpkins dissolved late in 2000, it looked like Corgan had turned his back on rock music entirely. It was clear that the concept and direction of the Pumpkins wasn’t satisfying him anymore and judging by the sales of Machina, the fans weren’t satisfied either. He was quoted making comments about how he couldn’t compete with the Britneys of the world, and boo hoo hoo, the true artists of the world can’t sell any records. Billy had hit a low point and spent some time away from the spotlight, looking within himself and rebuilding his ideas about what music meant to him, while many critics applauded and hoped that he was gone for good.

But Corgan is too much of a creative powerhouse to stay quiet forever. Billy appeared six months later, playing with the band New Order. Despite the speculations of some fans, who thought maybe he would turn to writing or fine art as a new vehicle of expression, Billy soon formed a new band. And in November of 2001, a mere year later, Zwan was born.

The Zwan story goes a little like this. In the early 90’s, just when Smashing Pumpkins were starting to gain their huge popularity, Billy Corgan met Matt Sweeney, a fellow guitar-god and the frontman for a band called Skunk. Skunk was one of Billy’s favourite bands at the time. They immediately hit it off, basing a friendship on a love of metal rock and a huge mutual respect for each other’s talents as a musician. At this point, the blueprint for the Pumpkins sound had been set, but Corgan admitted that the direction that Sweeney was taking was closer to the kind of music he truly wanted to play. He promised that as soon as his gig with the Pumpkins was over, they would form a new band with a harder, more intricate, more soulful sound and indie stylings, which one reviewer dubbed “arena folk metal.” Zwan was the fulfillment of that promise.

Matt Sweeney went on to form a band called Chavez, which saw some indie success, and Billy Corgan became a self-proclaimed god of Rock-n-Roll, but the idea of the possible collaboration had remained. Sweeney and Corgan were huge fans of Slint, and once the idea of Zwan was becoming a reality, they approached David Pajo, Slint’s former guitarist. Pajo signed on, despite having to juggle Zwan with his other project, Papa M. They rounded out the line-up with Pumkins powerhouse drummer, Jimmy Chamberlin, and later on, A Perfect Circle’s expert bassist, Paz Lenchantin. (By the way, is it me, or does Billy have a thing for female bassists? First D’arcy, then Melissa Auf De Maur, and now Paz? Hmmmm…)

The album that they have produced together is nothing short of brilliance. My best analogy is that Mary Star of the Sea is like a pair of thrift-store pants that have only just come back into fashion again: it’s a new thing for you, it’s comfortable, it’s hip, and you don’t have to invest very much to get into it.

Despite the fact that Corgan is credited with writing the large majority of the songs on the album, you can tell that there’s a new feeling to the music. Unlike with Smashing Pumpkins, Zwan is a collaborative project. You can tell that the band is the sum of all of its parts: five extremely talented musicians at the top of their game making the kind of music that they’ve always wanted to play. Yet they manage to perform it in a way that makes it accessible and entertaining rather than self-indulgent and out-of-touch.

You can tell that the joy is back in Corgan’s voice. His lyrics are uncharacteristically upbeat and hopeful and you can almost imagine him smiling while he’s singing. He likes what he’s doing, and it shows. The music and lyrics are personal and introspective, yet they’re also open and mature, showing that Corgan’s turned over a new leaf in his life. He used to shriek “God is dead!” and “Love is suicide!” and wrote ballads about his dead mother and his overall detachment from the world. Now Corgan writes about love, happiness, and about finally settling down, and shows a sense of humour with tongue-in-cheek songs like “Baby, Let’s Rock!” and “Yeah.” He’s obviously come to terms with many of his inner demons.

I think that Mary may be the freshest guitar-driven album I have heard in years. It goes back to the basics: strong, layered guitars, drums, and a lot of heart. It builds on the unique guitar styles of each of its members’ past projects and weaves them together in way that immediately hooks you. But unlike other single-use, burn-out songs of the week, the tracks are intricate enough that they stand up to constant listening. And unlike with James Iha and D’arcy’s watered-down, timid backing vocals, Corgan is now supported by Matt, Dave, and Paz, who are all accomplished vocalists of their own right, and who may, with future releases, challenge Billy for the top spot. Right now, it looks like it’s anybody’s game.

As for song highlights, it’s honestly hard to pick. Unlike many of the albums in my collection, it’s hard to trim any fat from Mary Star of the Sea. Each song stands on its own. The first song I heard was the radio-friendly “Honestly,” which I fist described as “Pumpkins lite” but sounds better and better every time I hear it. “El Sol,” which the album lists as a traditional song, is possibly the catchiest, warmest, most feel-good song that Corgan has ever recorded. “Ride a Black Swan” combines textured guitar riffs and some of the best drums I’ve ever heard from Chamberlin. The interplay of vocals between Corgan and Paz in “Lyric” is nothing less than magic, complementing each other in ways that D’arcy and Corgan could never get quite right. And the guitars on every track: layered, intricate, harmonized, brave, and confident, meshing together and collapsing in around each other into an unstoppable onslaught of sound and emotion that only comes together when you line up three of the finest guitarists in prog rock on the same stage.

Fans of the Smashing Pumpkins won’t be disappointed, but I expect Zwan to pick up some people that Billy lost along the way and many more. It’s familiar, yet it’s not the second coming of the Pumpkins. If anything, it’s much, much more. There’s a drive to the music, with the unique feeling of a hungry, up-and-coming band with plenty to prove and experienced, confident veterans who have already done their time in the trenches.

Zwan is here to stay and we’re going to be seeing a lot more from them, and that makes me real happy. If you get a chance, check out the disc and judge for yourself. Plus, if you buy it right now, you also get a bonus DVD with a documentary, more music, and interviews on the making of Zwan. Score.


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