ZiPS play the kind of primal-rocking, somewhat spazzy, stoner-friendly riff rock that should equally please fans of pop-tinged indie music and those who just want to hear crazy sounds bursting from the speakers. Their raw experiments and atmospheric sound would be enough to draw me in even if I knew nothing about the band, but ZiPS also happens to feature an Indiana music legend: Mytch (AKA Mitch) Harris, whose musical career includes drumming duties in Gentleman Caller, Jorma and the Movie Bare, and Velo Deluxe (two of which rank among my favorite Indiana bands of all time - just haven’t listened to much Velo Deluxe yet). As anyone familiar with those bands knows, he’s one of those rare drummers who are at once powerful, tasteful, and straightforward, while never overwhelming the song he’s working in.
Now living in Chicago, Harris recently formed ZiPS with Yuri Alexander (who is also in Chicago’s The Streets on Fire) after being introduced by a mutual friend. As the story goes, Alexander called up Harris one night to see if he would be interested in playing music together. Harris accepted only to find out that Alexander had already booked the “band” a gig that night for a friend’s deportation party. Apparently, for this first show, the two men lied and said they’d been playing together for years, caused a hellacious amount of racket and good times, and decided that there was a bit of musical magic between them. ZiPS further developed as a “real project” when Alexander received free recording time to make up for the theft of his guitar from a nearby studio. Again, he called up Mytch Harris, booked a few days, and created the raw materials that would become the band’s first record, Ah (available at bandcamp).
On their MFT page, ZiPS have opted to re-sequence the tracks from Ah and add in a couple bonus recordings not on the official album. In either context, the music sounds great: menacing post-punk guitar lines boldly scrape against pounding drums on “Psycho Beach Zombie,” and “Oh My Simone” features a timeless melody, a sublime keyboard breakdown, and a lighter feel that contrasts the band’s most sonically challenging moments. ZiPS are always big on atmosphere, and whether they’re taking cues from Pere Ubu, Les Savy Fav, or The Velvet Underground, they bring their own unique buzzing haze to the proceedings.
“Girl Fight Island” is a personal favorite: it stumbles forward with echo-laden howls, a discordant guitar line, bubbling toms, and some rather incomprehensible shouting about a girl fight. The song constantly threatens to fall apart. It inhabits a strange aural space between Captain Beefheart and TV Personalities, and by the time the organ part kicks in around :45 and Alexander declares, “GIRL FIIIIIIIIIIGHT” again, I want to jump up and thrash around my living room like a half-retarded ape. It’s hard to explain; you’d never expect to hear a song like “Girl Fight Island” on the radio or even at a party, but at a show, it could easily transform a grown man into a mental child having a spastic moshpit tantrum.
Check out this video (made by Yuri) for the song, "We Go":
Elsewhere, “Sputnik” is part rollicking stomper, part chilled-out wonderworld with plenty of cheeky synth gurgling. It falls into a chaotic musical abyss for a few moments before bursting into a coda that brings back the original triumphant riff. Again and again on their debut album, ZiPS prove capable of handling equally strong instrumentals, short post-punk anthems, experimental tangents, and mind-warping riffs that contort classic rock and roll sounds into bizarre new melodies. “Ursula Andress” harnesses unstoppable post-punk energy and ghostly synthesizers, and “What Happened to the Communist Party” sounds like Remain In Light being hijacked by Black Flag. “Heart Problem at State Fair” and “Shark Attack” are more of ZiPS’ rare breed of confrontational instrumentals, and the differences between the two songs indicate the wide range of musical techniques and talents this duo is able to employ at any given moment.
At times I’m amazed that ZiPS tossed this album and project together so effortlessly. Ah maintains loads of spontaneity through all of its songs, but it’s always evident that the music was crafted by two very adept composer/performers. Harris and Alexander really do sound like they’ve been playing together for years - constantly predicting and interpreting each other’s next move. However, they never sound like they’re just meandering or needlessly jamming. There’s urgency and brevity, chaos and sophistication, novelty and familiarity. ZiPS can rock you, electrify you, and even make you scratch your head. But it’s always deliberate; these guys don’t have time to mess around. Keep an eye out for upcoming shows and releases.