Thanks to a myriad of tales — some absurd (Demolition Man), some celebrated (Rip Van Winkle) — we know fairly well the fate of those who spend long periods in a cryogenically frozen state or deep sleep. Life goes on, and the snoozers reawaken and find the world to be a new and scary place. If this is true, then how can we expect Radio Birdman — which broke up in 1978 and recently reunited — to match its masterful Gerald Ford-era output? We can’t. This might sound like a conversation uttered around a bong, but just try to imagine how different the world is today from twenty-eight years ago. Your mind is blown, right, dude?
Believe it or not, despite my recently quashed lofty expectations for the band’s return, the members of Radio Birdman have outdone themselves. Granted, some of the up-tempo tunes lack the ferocity of the Australian band’s earlier work, but I bet your old man isn’t nearly as pissed off as he used to be. To best critique Zeno Beach, I will consider the album in two distinct parts: those that sound like the old band, and those that don’t.
The old: “Remorseless” is a virile reminder of the band’s remarkable ability to create dynamic arrangements; when vocalist Rob Younger steps to aural foreground, the band lays back, only to reappear with guitarist Deniz Tek’s signature whammy-bar stylings. The frenetic tempo and atypical chording of “Connected” epitomizes Radio Birdman’s surf/punk-rock amalgam. “Subterfuge” boogies and then meanders, as Pip Hoyle’s keyboard punctuates Tek’s riffing. Throughout Zeno Beach, keyboards and organ play much a larger role than during the band’s previous incarnation. Despite its repetitive chorus, “Locked Up” is proof the band can still rock with reckless abandon, and “The Brotherhood of Al Wazah” is a testament to Younger’s inventive songwriting. The song is my personal favorite, followed closely behind by the title track. Both sound decidedly fuller than the rest of the album, suggesting they were perhaps the product of a different session. Whatever the reason, both stand up to the band’s work in the seventies.
The new: “You Just Make It Worse” is an entirely different rhythm for the band. Instead of the surf-rock gallop Radio Birdman fans are accustomed to, the band settles into a riff-inspired 4/4 groove with less than stellar results. “If You Say Please” sounds dated, but by only twelve years or so. The song’s funky guitar work wouldn’t sound the least bit out of place on early-’90s alternative rock radio flanked by Pearl Jam and Blind Melon. “Die Like April’s” use (and overuse) of flanger-laden vocal masking is distracting, and “Heyday’s” rimshots are an unwelcome addition to drummer Russell Hopkinson’s otherwise proficient arsenal.
So what does this all mean to the band that proved Australians, despite their love of all things mellow, could teach the rest of the world a thing or two about surf and punk rock? Bupkis. I’ll fess up: I’m just glad they reunited so I could check them off my list of bands I don’t expect to release any new material. Now, onto Zeppelin.
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