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Tuesday, Aug. 7, 2012

Zebras' Bleak State of the World

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Underground rock bands have touched upon issues of violence, illness and death for ages, to the point of draining these topics of any real emotional force. Superficial discussions of the realities of life (or, in the worst of genres, an outright celebration of these things that hurt) trump nuanced articulations of hurt and loss. The imagery of destruction quickly became shorthand for musical brawn, as if simply talking about annihilation could make one's band more powerful.

The new self-titled album by Milwaukee/Madison band Zebras does not shy away from such painful subject matter; there is little doubt that this is a serious record. Yet what makes the album work is the band's ability to address these morose topics on a micro-level and to bring greater specificity to what is often talked about only in the most abstract terms. Zebras is an intensely personal record, one that challenges the listener to interrogate their own thoughts on morality. "There's a really serious, dark attitude to the album," explains keyboardist/backing vocalist Lacey Smith, "just because I think we all see the state of the world as pretty grim and getting worse."

This commitment to unflinchingly documenting the death that surrounds us can be seen in tracks such as "The Mighty Bayonet," which addresses the realities of warfare in the early 21st century. "No guilt killing through a computer screen," bays vocalist/guitarist/bassist Vincent Presley. "The bored show up and play the game." In "The Dying Sea," such destruction has profound environmental implications. "In your life," the band pleads, "you'll see the sea die / in your lives, you'll see the seas die."

Yet the album is most effective when the band takes on these topics on a more personal level. "The Dirty Dice" condemns a rapist that the band describes as part of the underground scene, as well as our collective inability to confront such individuals and their actions, while "Black Cancer" describes the sensation of watching loved ones die from this horrific disease. Here, cancer is "the thing that ate way Granny H ... and then Randy / it ate his neck and his face." Most intriguingly, Zebras also pays attention to what we put in our own bodies, and how these substances can harm us. "A Turd By Any Other Name"—Zebras also have a sense of humor—calls on the listener to "Piss out all the poisons that you eat / if you can, but then what does that leave?" At the same time, album standout "The Serpent & The Pig" talks about "my friend, Steve the pig / he got a nice job / and became a 'cruelty free' pork chop / bullshit / horseshit."

None of the lyrics would be as effective without the sonic force the Zebras are able to whip up. Call Me Lightning drummer Shane Hochstetler plays on much of Zebras—he also recorded the album—and his propulsive playing style adds much to the band's sound. Hochstetler's playing brings the band a harder edge and, as one might expect, there are nods to seminal punk (Dead Kennedys) and metal (Black Sabbath) throughout Zebras. Yet what really sets Zebras apart is their ability to integrate the attitude and sounds of industrial/noise acts like Skinny Puppy, Killing Joke and Men's Recovery Project. Taken together, it's a potent mix.

Such an open-minded approach ensures that the songs on Zebras are never weighed down by their heavy lyrical content. Believe it or not, Zebras is also a fun record; one can tell that the band has enjoyed bringing these songs to life. If, in fact, "The end is fucking near," as the band warns in "The Dying Sea," then the apocalypse never sounded so good.

Zebras play the Cactus Club on Saturday, Aug. 11, with Burning Sons and Magnetic Minds.
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