Albums / EPs, Reviews

Album Review: Glass Animals – Zaba

With a steady and bewildering stream of soulful psychedelia released by the Oxford four-piece, Glass Animals…

 

With a steady and bewildering stream of soulful psychedelia released by the Oxford four-piece, Glass Animals, over the last two years; paired with a signing to Paul Epworth’s new label, Wolf Tone (producer-extraordinaire credited to the likes of success stories such as Bloc Party, Florence & The Machine, Adele and many more), it’s safe to say that their debut release, ZABA, would be ushered in with both a welcoming, and highly critical eye. On the one hand, people have come to know that whatever they release holds a unique and astute sound, created through a crafty and dynamic array of synthpop, psychedelic rock, R&B, soul, and trip-hop, all topped off by Dave Baley’s sultry and catchy vocals. Yet, on the other hand, the expectations are sky-high and ZABA had to deliver the goods. After a thorough listen, it seems that these new boys on the block have put out an extraordinary album. It’s sharp and hyper-refined, but there’s an edgy intelligence and sophistication to their tropical-pop blends and 90s soul jams – a dangerous, boundary-breaking attitude, if you will – that filters through their flawless productions, making it a pretty surreal listen. 

It takes more than one listen to get to grips with only a small portion of the sounds present. The frontman, Dave Bayley, has described the album’s sound as “If Timbaland and Dr. Dre had a love child that was brought up feral by a pack of wolves on a desert island and then that child created a soundtrack of its life,” which is a pretty accurate summary. If that’s not enough, the album title itself is a reference to the children’s book by William Steig, The Zabajaba Jungle, and it’s clear that Glass Animals have attempted to recreate the enthralling, visceral and exotic experience of being a young boy adventuring in a jungle. This, as well as many other childhood influences, such as the literature of Roald Dahl and Kenneth Grahame, shine through in the sonic nature: it’s an album that screams for immersive listening conditions – an escape to a fantastical place, only discovered through a good pair of headphones or an incredibly loud sound system. The listener is encouraged to feed off the visceral and hyper-textured sonic landscape they have so shrewdly cultivated for us, ultimately becoming an explorer in their own adventure.

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Of course, their music could be described as danceable fodder for the young (think MGMT, Alt J), but more than that, their songs are expertly arranged and refined, swirling and humming in and out of consciousness. Hints of Matthew Dear’s Beams and Animal Collective can be heard in the potent euphoria and the rushes of fantasy, shaped through heavy bass and percussion, as well as tendrils of texture and rich bursts of unusual sounds. The opening track of the album, ‘Flip’, introduces us to these sounds by starting out mellow, but slowly the hollow percussion and Dave’s ‘loud whispers’ flow into a dense sea of backing vocals, drums and sonic fronds, beams and mechanics. ‘Black Mambo’, a single that has had a prior-release, oozes a different kind of confidence in a bigger-band style, yet it definitely doesn’t stand out as one of the more exciting tracks in an album crippled by swaths of jungle sounds. This can also be said of ‘Toes’, which sits poorly in its industrial-rock garb in what is an otherwise sensational second half of theLP. ‘Pools’, on the other hand, brings back that richer, bigger and brighter sound they have become known for. The earthy sounds break into a tribal jam, providing a perfect rhythmic pulse for the synth overtones. As a foretaste for single, ‘Gooey’, it could not be better placed, as ‘Gooey’ enters as a slightly wobbly, heavily padded electronic masterpiece encasing a R&B hit, signaling Epworth’s sublime production skills.

‘Walla Walla’ then brings back the tribal jam, smoothed out by Baley’s vocal work, all reminiscent of the productions of Timbaland and Dr Dre. Their sound is heavy and layered, but there is a palpable balance and a sense of scientific precision in the way they formulate their songs. We are then transported back into a jungle lull with ‘Intruxx’, but not for long before it caves into a wild and experimental trip-hop gem. ‘Hazey’ is a sass-machine of a song, fueled by soft shakers, flick-flacking chimes, dense lows, and glistening highs in the form of Baley’s R&B vocal modulations, which are particularly sincere. ‘Wyrd’ comes as a complete shock to the system after ‘Toes’, with its bass and percussion heavy dimensions bringing about a sigh of relief when the oldest track, ‘Cocoa Hooves’, gently floats on reverb-laden guitar chords, gently bringing about its really crisp bass-heavy, yet soulful climax, before easing us out in their mellowed-out ‘90s soul finale. 

Their music is their professed love of unicorns and slugs in sonic form. One of the great things about ZABA is the meeting point between the squeaky clean production and the peculiarity of their passions, just as there is an endearing interchange between their slightly effete appearance and their risk-taking-no-fucks-given attitude in the studio. Their self-confidence oozes out of every sound generated in this album, but it is still a debut. Doubtless, there is loads more room for improvement. They need to learn to wean themselves off the hyper-lucidity of the crisp production and the safety net it provides, and move further towards experimenting and flexing the multitude of talents they collectively possess. 

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