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cover Zerfas : Zerfas

An excellent lysergia.com review


ZERFAS: Zerfas (700 West, US 1973)

Rating: 10 out of 10

Sounds best on: A beautiful September day

Info at: liner notes with OOP reissue

Availability: A CD release has been rumored for several years. Everybody e-mail Howard Phillips howardale[at]-remove-webtv.net and harass him until he goes ahead with it.

Picture some extremely talented teenagers, still young enough to think that nothing in this world can matter more than rock and roll, but mature enough to understand exactly what makes good music and what doesn't. Now imagine that these teenagers win the lottery and decide to use their windfall to spend an entire year in the recording studio. They write until they have eight songs they know are great, then spend that year perfecting them, using every ounce of their imagination so that each song reaches its absolute maximum potential. Luckily, they have a studio engineer who's as creative as them, and while they go out of their way to experiment like crazy, everyone involved has enough taste to use only the very best ideas.

Once you've let that concept sink in, clear your mind and try to imagine what might have happened if the Beatles hadn't stepped away from psychedelia after 1967, and through some magic time warp they went straight to 1973 with their inspiration and songwriting skills still at their peak. And when they chose the songs for the 1973 album, someone smartly convinced McCartney to save his crappy ballad for a B-side. Sound too good to be true? It's not. This album is every bit as good as both of these scenarios. All of the studio effort wouldn't mean much if the songwriting isn't first rate, but it is. It's at the level of, say, Anonymous' INSIDE THE SHADOW (oddly enough, also from Indiana), or the Zombies' ODESSEY AND ORACLE. And while the band isn't composed of virtuoso instrumentalists, neither are the Beatles or the Stones. The members of Zerfas play well enough to express their ideas fully, have a solid sense of rhythm and timing, and every guitar solo, keyboard interlude and drum roll are perfect. They're not complicated or show-offy, just perfect. The lead guitar throughout also has an absolutely ideal sound, not too far removed from that on ABBEY ROAD. It sounds like a Gretsch through a Leslie speaker; whether it is or not, it's just right for these songs.

The Beatles' comparison, while justified, simplifies Zerfas and their sound. One can find bits of Pink Floyd (from both prog and psych eras) here and there, ideas drawn from any major psychedelic band you can imagine, and even a tiny nod towards punk rock (which they must have invented because the Ramones' first concert was still more than a year away) on the opening 'You Never Win'. The sound is a rich mix of keyboards and guitars, heavy only on 'You Never Win' and the joyous boogie tune 'Stoney Wellitz,' but never wimpy. The vocals, other than the rough sing-speak on 'You Never Win,' are smooth and poignant; the harmonies soar. The production is dense but not cluttered, just dark enough for the effects to have power, but clear enough for the vocals to shine through.

The structure of the album is impeccable. From the opening moment, it's obvious you're in for something truly special. 'You Never Win' fades in with a backwards loop, over which a lovely melody appears. It goes on for a while, but could continue for hours more without becoming tiresome. It's as great and true a musical moment as there has ever been. Rudely, the drums disrupt the calm to begin the body of the song, an updated 60s garage punker with powerful organ. As the song nears the end, the opening melody recurs, only this time it's played forwards. It's at this moment that you realize that this album is a true work of art, not just a bunch of great moments but a perfectly conceived synthesis of ideas. If only to prove the point, within a few seconds of the next song, 'The Sweetest Part,' we are treated to the most beautiful fuzz guitar riff in history. As the album moves along, all of the eight songs have moments that, while unlikely to match the perfection of the backwards bit or the searing fuzz riff, should send shivers down the most jaded spine.

The songs are enlivened by psychedelic experiments that range from the slowed-down laughter of a tickled child to someone belching the words 'mushroom soup.' Not just each song, but each verse is arranged with intricate care, and surprises like the stunning percussion that ends the quiet 'I Need It Higher' keep the listener guessing. The two songs that begin side two show a bit of the spirit of 1973. The bouncy 'Stoney Wellitz' (and its almost trendy moog solo), and 'Hope', with its ocean sound effects and long, layered keyboard solo, are longer and more likely to appeal to, say, prog fans, than the pop-oriented songs on side one. That's not to say the seem out of place or don't work, because they do, in spades. And in no time at all, we're back to massive walls of 60s-inspired psychedelia. The introduction to 'Fool's Parade' is interrupted by a stunning backwards vocal (don't listen to people who claim it says something; it's gibberish in both directions.) The body of the song ends after only two minutes, only to be followed by two further minutes of sped-up guitar, slowed-down guitar, space sounds and the aforementioned 'mushroom soup' reference.

This is all set-up, though, for the album's finest moment, the closing 'The Piper.' A more ideal pop song is unlikely to exist. From the opening piano trills to gorgeous verses to gorgeous bridge to gorgeous chorus to stunning keyboard solo to the most perfect of the album's many perfect guitar solos, in just four minutes they've done the impossible. They top what came before. The album ends on the final moment of genius; the piano trill returns and then is abruptly cut off, leaving the listener with his or her mouth hanging wide open. Not only has the song itself been framed by the piano, so has the album as a whole; the first and last song share the framing device, and the abrupt end is as compelling as the backwards fade-in.

No, this album isn't completely perfect. I'm not entirely convinced that the speak-singing on 'You Never Win' really works, and perhaps the plethora of clever arrangement ideas push both 'Stoney Wellitz' and 'You Don't Understand' a verse too long. Oh, and this will never be my own personal favorite album because the lyrics don't hit home with me in the way something has to in order to be a #1 desert island pick. But musically, there's no album on this universe I enjoy more than ZERFAS, and no album from which I can discover more new joys after hundreds of listens. The first reissue of this album contains several pages of notes about the band, and presumably gives some idea why they never released any more music. I've never found this issue of the record; I'm not sure I even want to know the answer to the many questions I have about these guys. And, oddly, the fact that it was never followed is almost a plus, a way of making sure that this album's greatness will never be tarnished by the company it keeps. Obviously my view on this album is full of bias; only a few people will love it quite as much as I do. But most will love it almost as much.

This is one of those rare albums that justifies its huge price tag. It's also proof that an independently produced album can have the perfect combination no mainstream album ever had after the mid 60s: it's free of any commercial pressures, but was made with the kind of studio time and energy normally allotted to major label releases. There are more great ideas here than in the whole history of (to pick a band who used more studio time than anyone else) Queen, and more inspired freakiness than in the entire catalogue of 60s San Francisco bands. Psych fans and classic rock fans alike can appreciate it. In all seriousness, collectors spend their whole lives looking for just one album that justifies their quest. I've found mine.

- review by Aaron Milenski

(swiped from http://www.lysergia.com/LamaReviews/reviews4.ht... Sat Jan 24 15:35:29 PST 2004)

 
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