Nov 8, 2013

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November 2013: The Zolas – “Ancient Mars”

November 2013: The Zolas – “Ancient Mars”

In which your hostess makes a complete fool of herself by applying her critical writing skills to gushing like a teenager.

There may be more recent albums whose praises should be sung, and Canadian Thanksgiving may have come and gone, but I honestly can’t think of an album I’m more grateful for than the sophomore effort by Vancouver duo The Zolas. Thirteen months after its release, I’m still genuinely blown away by Ancient Mars, and I never cease to be impressed by its sound, its tone, and its emotionality.

There’s a slightly personal component to this, I admit; Ancient Mars was announced about a week after I’d been dumped by a long-time boyfriend, leaving me reeling and in shock; I remember checking Twitter during a work break, crying as quietly as I could (I had two officemates in very close quarters), and seeing the announcement made me so happy for the first time in days. When the album was released in October of 2012, it was perfectly timed to be therapeutic without becoming irrevocably entwined with my heartbreak.

Ancient Mars has a more mellow sound than The Zolas’ debut, Tic Toc Tic; the cabaret-style energy of that album made for some truly incredible tracks, to be sure, but Ancient Mars proved that the group had more than just one sound. Wrapped in a cozy blanket of reverb and 90s-style guitar rock, Ancient Mars is more contemplative while still holding on to the unflinching nerdiness that makes The Zolas’ songwriting so appealing. The title track mourns a lost love with an astronomy metaphor, while still grounding the situation in “the campus library aisles”; the lead single, “Knot in My Heart,” builds up its layers of sound piece by piece, telling the story of a man who can’t quite get that one ex out of his head. These tracks, along with more upbeat tunes like “Strange Girl” and “Euphrates and Tigris”, come together to form a picture of a relationship that has ended sorrowfully and is being recalled with distant nostalgia.

But the two breakout tracks, for me, are the final ones. The official finale, “Cold Moon,” made me stop dead in my tracks the first time I heard it. The first half sounds as though singer Zachary Gray is singing to an empty bar after closing time, whispering lines like “I found the stomach to deny / the urge to look you up online / don’t want to creep on your profile / but sometimes I still do.” Then the music…I don’t know exactly what the sound effect is, but there’s a short burst of static which serves as a transition into the “Hey Jude”-like final half, with a consistently repeated chorus which builds and then fades away. It made me cry then, and sometimes it makes me cry now. It’s powerful and sad and fucking wonderful.

The bonus track, “Cultured Man”, was originally released as a split single with another band, The Liptonians. Here it’s been remastered, sounding cleaner and far more  balanced between the lyrics and the music, and it serves as an upbeat coda to an album that has resonated with heartbreak. “I want to be your cultured man,” the song claims, declaring a loopy sort of love for a girl reminiscent of Tic Toc Tic’s “You Better Watch Out.” It may be coincidence, but it feels like the song ties up ends by promising that for all the heartbreak and sorrow and crap that comes from a breakup, it’s nearly guaranteed that you will end up doing it all again someday–“Just to impress you, my love.”

So that’s Ancient Mars. It solidified The Zolas as one of my top three favourite bands, and I genuinely can’t say enough good things about them.

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