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Guided By Voices - "Zeppelin Over China" | Album Review

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by David Haynes (@shooshlord)

Guided by Voices is one of those bands that will forever be haunted by their past. Almost every year, I read some article about Bee Thousand being something like the Velvet Underground & Nico of the 90s. It convinced another generation to pick up guitars, purchase a Tascam 4-track recorder, and drink copious amounts of cheap beer in search of power pop perfection. And yet, Robert Pollard and his most recent ensemble of Doug Gillard, Bobby Bare Jr., Kevin March, and Mark Shue appear to be going through another renaissance. 25 years later, they are still putting out incredible, weird, and endlessly catchy rock and roll. The spectacular new double album Zeppelin Over China is a collection of soaring choruses and big riffs that sounds just as fresh and inventive as the band’s celebrated 90s catalog. 

I am always frightened when a band that has been around for a long time releases a new record. Guided by Voices has been a staple of American indie rock for nearly thirty years now, and it’s incredible that they are still releasing records at breakneck speed. However, Pollard’s pop-infused, beer-soaked reinvention of rock and roll has lost none of its power and energy. 

If there is a sister record to Zeppelin Over China in the GBV canon, it is 1996’s Under The Bushes, Under The Stars. Both have a certain grandeur about them that makes them stand out in the GBV canon. The song structures are longer. Zeppelin has a total of 32 songs, and is an hour and 15 minutes. Under the Bushes was also one of the longest GBV records in 96 at 24 songs at just under an hour. When Pollard writes song with longer structures and focuses on sequencing, the result is albums that sound absolutely huge. 

Zeppelin is full of giant, riffy rock that navigates the fine line between stadium and basement with absolute grace and poise. Opening tracks “Good Morning Sir” and “Step of the Wave” are perfect examples of masterful rock and roll songwriting. They feature pummeling guitar chords alongside big, pounding drums. All the while, Pollard’s melodies and kaleidoscope lyrics keep the songs moving and imbue the frantic pace with a sense of almost childlike wonder.  “Carapace” features an amazing riff from Gillard and Bare Jr., and a cowbell to top it all off. This holy trinity of album openers lets us know that GBV is indeed back, and perhaps better than ever. 

As the record continues, the rockers truly stand out as some of the best performances from every member of GBV. “Blurring the Contacts” starts off with AM radio static, but eventually a tom-heavy drum groove alongside a truly nasty riff featuring Shue’s excellent bass tone. “Wrong Turn On” is led by acoustic guitar, but still has this frantic, driving feeling. Once again, it also features an incredible Pollard melody. “Lurk of the Worm” features some of Kevin March’s best drum performances to date, as well as some truly bizarre, incredible guitar playing from Gillard & Bare Jr. ‘Where Have You Been All My Life” sounds something like a Ramones song a few beers deep. Full of swagger, “Transpiring Anathema” is a big, crashing reminder of Pollard’s ability to write songs that make you uncontrollably bob your head.

Alongside the all-out rockers, there are some gorgeous power pop ballads on this record. ‘Send in the Suicide Squad” features some very Big Star-esque guitar leads stuffed in between huge open chords and gorgeous arpeggios. “Einstein’s Angel” is a plodding, mid-tempo number with gorgeous clean guitar riffs and an absolutely enchanting melody. The chorus melody in “You Own The Night” begs to get stuck in your head. The song also builds and builds until it drops into a weird, acoustic guitar segment before kicking back into high gear. “The Rally Boys,” though fast and certainly driving, features an absolutely gorgeous pop melody full of British invasion’s fervor.  “My Future in Barcelona” sounds caught between bedroom pop and arena rock, with palm-muted chords and big arpeggios from Gillard. The gang vocals during the chorus that join with Pollard on “moving units, saving time” takes the song into the stratosphere.  

Where Pollard & Co really excel is the songs that don’t quite fit either camp; the tracks that aren’t big, Who-esque rockers or the tracks that don’t drip with Beatles-esque guitar sentimentality. There are songs on this record that are uniquely GBV. “Your Lights Are Out” features a discordant riff alongside one of Pollard’s darker, weirder melodies until the chorus. At the chorus, it becomes a driving, major key pop song.  “Windshield Wiper Rex” is a song that only Pollard could write, and the frequent tempo changes keep the song feeling spontaneous and engaging. “Jack Tell” goes through three different reincarnations in the span of three minutes. It starts out with clean guitar chords, descends into cluttered synthesizer and acoustic guitar ramblings, and then rebuilds into a rocker. There’s an off-kilter brand of songwriting that only GBV can achieve, and it finds its way into a number of songs on this record.

This album is all things to all people. It’s got pop sensibilities alongside killer riffs and guitar playing. There are soft, tender moments alongside pounding drums and soaring melodies. Thirty years into his residency as an indie rock icon, Robert Pollard is still asking the same question he has always asked us: “Are you amplified to rock?” The quantity (and quality) of Guided by Voices’ recent output, the exuberance of these new songs, and the rock and roll revelry of their live performances all invite us to be a part of indie rock’s storied history and bright future. With Zeppelin Over China, Pollard and this new(ish) band of collaborators have stumbled upon excellence.