Few bands can be simultaneously timeless and relevant, but that’s exactly the hi-wire act Zeus has become as a new millennium hit factory set for a triumphant return with the release of sophomore full-length Busting Visions.
The album follows 2010 Polaris Prize-nominated debut Say Us, which topped CBC charts, won XM The Verge’s award for Album of the Year, garnered stellar reviews from top rock mags like Q and Uncut and led to shows with Broken Social Scene, Metric, Sam Roberts Band, Bright Eyes and Belle & Sebastian.
And with all of this, Busting Visions finds Zeus already hitting the ground running.
Driven by the three-headed songwriting beast of multi instrumentalists/vocalists Mike O’Brien, Carlin Nicholson and Neil Quin as well as drummer Rob Drake, they operate out of a dilapidated garage in Toronto’s scrappy east end. There, the band’s Ill Eagle studio serves as ground zero for a burgeoning scene of collaborators, for which Zeus is the lightning rod.
And it was there - as well as the ranch studio of label mate Feist - Busting Visions took shape, and where it was produced, recorded and mixed by the band alongside longtime collaborator Robbie Lackritz (Feist, Jamie Lidell).
Busting Visions’ 14 tracks were penned on bedside motel stationary, coffee shop napkins, the backs of unopened-bill envelopes, scraps of drywall, anything these bright-eyed, shaggy-headed ‘cowboys’ (a band colloquialism) could scratch their manifold musings on. Hooks were hashed out on hotel lobby pianos, backstage pianos and pawnshop guitars in the third-row bench of the van.
They wrote incessantly over two years of helter skelter touring, spurred on by the prolific dynamic of three writers that can’t help but finish each other’s sentences.
“The story of this record is that it’s really our first as a band,” O’Brien explains, pointing to the fact that Say Us ultimately drew from a revolving door of creative contributors.
“This is a tight-knit unit of four dudes that are now Zeus,” adds Nicholson. “Something that really only came together over two years on the road.”
And it shows, in the band’s smoking hot live show and in its sweaty romp of a sophomore record, which is chock full of freewheeling hooks, harmonies and riffs galore.
“Just one of the three singers/multi-instrumentalists from this band would be a force to reckon with,” insists another longtime collaborator, Jason Collett.
“But when you combine the savvy talents of all three on one record you have a triune god lobbing thunderbolts from on high.”
In fact each Zeus songwriter readily admits to a strong spirit of competition within the group, and to it having a healthy impact on the band as a whole.
As Nicholson adds, “You bring your best every time.”
The fruits of this labour are plain as day on collaborative efforts like “Stop The Train” and “Love In A Game,” where subtleties in the voices of Quin, Nicholson and O’Brien surge distinctively with poignant harmonies and falsetto keening grandeur.
With an exemplary sense of melody, cocksure guitar chops and thunder storming drums, Zeus excel at far more than just one style on Busting Visions’ unrelenting, high energy, raucous workout.
“Strong Mind” is a masterpiece, melodically weaving into a chorus that is at once sad, beautiful and redemptive.
“With Eyes Closed” is richly dark and psychedelic, but sincerely so, much like the delicate beauty of “Let It Go, Don’t Let It Go” and “Proud And Beautiful.”
And then there’s “Are You Gonna’ Waste My Time?” a refreshingly raw, explosive slice of 70s glory, loaded with sinewy guitar hooks.
A pedigree of influences from Fats Domino to Michael Jackson and Stevie wonder to Queen bleed into the melodic fabric of saturated, soulful serenades like “Messenger’s Way,” demonstrating Zeus’ acute understanding of exactly what it is that makes the best songs so good.
Even Busting Visions’ shortest track, the 55 second “Bright Brown Opus,” manages to conjure Boston, Big Star and the British Invasion in an alarmingly fresh and inspired way. It’s all there. AM radio from dial to dial, minus the filler and full of the future.
Without a doubt, Zeus has every bit of it right at their fingertips - just like all the gods that came before.