by Max Freedman (@anticlimaxwell)
27 minutes is pretty long for an EP, but Zula’s never been one for short songs. 6 Passes—named this because it’s a six-song collection—follows the Brooklyn psychedelic groove band’s explorative sophomore LP Grasshopper, an immersive set of eight songs averaging five minutes in length but also including some seven-to-eight minute odysseys. Fans will be excited to learn that the EP continues where Grasshopper left off; listeners won’t be left wanting for songs that envelop the ears with string-thin guitar lines, the alternating murmur and clatter of drums, synths that roll like washing machines and drift like dandelions in the wind, pianos that bounce without slamming, and nasal vocals that Dave Longstreth might occasionally mistake for his own. Unchanged is that nagging amazement at how this band, vastly underrated in the broad scheme of recent years’ rock bands, can make a lengthy study feel like a brief scan; new is how grounded these songs feel.
It’s a respectable challenge to describe Zula’s songs with anything other than abstractions: swirling, enveloping, trippy, blissful. 6 Passes feels somewhat more tangible, thanks primarily to a slight uptick in production quality; at their root, though, these are still loose journeys towards some higher state. Drums that leave behind a prominent rattle after their impact outline portions of “Try It,” interlocking with tiny synth loops and palm-muted guitar blips to forge an arrow towards some gorgeous, unknown destination. “Anything for You” opens with Zula’s approximation of a drum circle and gradually chases a jogging set of guitars towards a serene heaven flush with pianos and violins; the distorted guitars sweeping this song’s chorus, among the gruffest six-string passages in the band’s catalog, relieve the delicate fabric of its weightlessness, adding gravity to steady the song. “Unmistakable” seasons Zula’s usual vibe with the pecking of woodblock and the chirp of fat piano notes, instantly hooking listeners into yet another colorful Zula adventure.
This all happens in the first half of the EP, just about 14 minutes. The second half of the EP is the most accessible, traditional set of songs Zula has ever written. Its darker shades and tenser builds show a side of Zula that could birth some truly classic psychedelic albums in the near future. Few else might think to overlay jagged guitar lines with deeply reverberant saxophones lines as Zula does on “City World,” the verses of which come packaged with a vocal cadence that’s funky by this typically wavy band’s standards. “All Except” is possibly the boldest way Zula has ever opened a track, crystalline and bassy piano rumble instantly grabbing attention before ceding to little synth bubbles and that unobtrusive, weaving voice. By some miracle, Zula is able to grow the song into a chasm of guitar gargles and ever-pining percussion over the next minute. “Breathe In” offers somewhat of a comedown at first, saxophone reemerging (though much farther back in the mix) to guide the band to a calm resolution lasting through the final chorus. Its last minute or so is like the Candyland version of the magic brew for which many folks the age of Zula’s members cherish Destroyer’s Kaputt.
Within Zula’s abstractions often lie equally (and enjoyably) inscrutable lyrics. The band describes its characters’ actions and personalities fairly concretely, but, with time, the narrative often shifts to something far more difficult to pin down. The story guiding the Radiohead-esque midsection of “Unmistakable” shifts from a standard loner’s tale to the sight of someone leaping from a factory into the sky in a moment’s notice; someone respects another person’s grammar, of all things, on “Breathe In”; “Try It” reads as a list of directives and ideals rather than any sort of linear action. What the band says with its words can be easy to miss, since what it says with its music takes a rewardingly tremendous amount of processing to register as traceable songs. By the time one deciphers the lyrics, their meaning carries little weight; the sounds one first cleaves through, including the featherweight singing styles, are plenty magical enough.
As its words go, 6 Passes doesn’t represent much of a shift from Grasshopper. It’s not likely that anyone who loved that album fixated on its lyrics; here too, the music is far more the focus, especially since it’s so profound and, at least within pop confines, experimental. It’s not often that a band tries on a whole palette of styles and sounds good in pretty much all of them; here, Zula flips through a wealth of intriguing styles, many that listeners might have sensed they could touch upon but hadn’t quite yet tried. In linking the sound Zula’s come to be known for with these new threads, glimmers of a truly brilliant future are audible.