Zeno Beach - Radio Birdman (Crying Sun)
It’s finally arrived. Years late, but well worth the wait.
I’m often accused of being an apologist and a booster for Radio Birdman. Guilty as charged on the second count, and there’s no need to apologise for on the first. Of course I don’t listen to the albums 24 hours a day but I did grow up with their first. “Radios Appear” (both versions) not only intrigued with their sense of dark style (an essential element in great rock and roll) and mystery, but how they also opened the ears to the possibilities of music while conveying raw energy. The posthumous “Living Eyes” was icing on the cake, a broadening of the palate but also suggestive of a band with possibilities left unexplored.
So to the "difficult third album" (discounting the live-in-the-studio "Ritualism" which was more or less off-the-cuff), 28 years after the first one appeared. So here's The Big Statement:
"Zeno Beach" is a great album. Maybe the best thing the band ever did.
It could have been less so, however, given the march of time and the propensity of Radio Birdman members to be at odds with each other. The gestation period was lengthened by all the expected factors like rehearsals, demo-ing and touring, as well as the tyranny of distance (members were located in three countries) and personal commitments. Being brutally honest, however, there were times since the band's 1996 reformation when a new studio album was the least likely turn of events.
For years it was said of Rob Younger's favourite National Rugby League team, St George, that they were weighed down by a hefty backpack full of tradition. "Zeno Beach" has a similar handicap. Like it or not (and some members reject there’s been a legacy), expectations of this album have been sky-high. Most of the band are students of rock and roll (a couple are obsessives) and were only too aware that live shows are one thing, but not many reconstituted acts of significance can deliver a successful comeback album.
It's a moot point but Radio Birdman should have recorded a new studio album back in the late ‘90s. That would have been the sensible career move and they could have headed off to Europe to rake in the festival cash. Of course it never happened - and maybe that’s a good thing.
“Zeno Beach” had its birth in 2002, when the band set off on a rapturously-received “farewell” Australian tour. A few tracks (not yet released) were recorded in-between shows. Band members realised they could work together with some adjustments like relocation, and the farewell became a re-birth.
When it came to the sharp end, Radio Birdman went into the little-known but well-regarded Big Jesus Burger Studio in inner-city Sydney and simply played. There’s some a little overdubbing, but the bulk of the songs were recorded live. (And at frightening volume, it has to be said, resulting in the studio’s first-ever visit by the Environmental Protection Agency and the destruction of a very expensive vocal microphone, through red wine and sheer decibels).
There’s no overstating the importance of this record for the ongoing existence of Radio Birdman. If the band was to keep going, new songs had to provide momentum. You can only do so many “greatest hits” sets, from a band and fan perspective alike.
One sharp difference that's instantly recognisable is the production. The drums sound contemporary with a rock solid bottom end that hasn’t always been present. You can hear why the band raved about engineer Greg Wales. It’s a rock and roll mix with room for all the essential elements to bleed through. Deniz Tek’s production is the textbook “transparent mix” and instrumentation weaves and dive-bombs in and out of the spaces like programmed missiles. The guitars sear like ignited magnesium instead of just buzzing around, with Tek and Masuak using a variety of sonic aural airbrushes to paint an unprecedented range of textures.
It's the small sonic touches that provide defining moments. The single piano note in Rob’s “Subterfuge”, for example, a device used to similarly stunning effect on the New Christs’ “Lower Yourself” that echoes the Stooges’ first album percussive efforts (and more on that later). The way Pip Hoyle’s Hammond takes a breath just before the bridge in “The Brotherhood of Al Wazah”. And Rob’s strangled “bleahhhhh” on the cusp of the guitar solo in “Hungry Cannibals”. Speaking of defining moments, those vocal accents of “yeah” that Rob lays down are as integral to Radio Birdman songs as cowbell is to Blue Oyster Cult’s “Don’t Fear the Reaper”.
The casually observant should know that Birdman has had a re-tooled engine dropped in over the last five years. Jim Dickson is on bass for Warwick Gilbert and long-time drummer Ron Keeley’s departure some time came after (his living in the UK severely limited rehearsing and playing) brought in Nik Rieth (briefly) and then Russell Hopkinson. Jim was a natural choice, being a part of two members’ other bands and a fabulous player who fills the spaces just right. Russell Hopkinson’s on drums was a surprise for many; I remember Tex Perkins being incredulous when told, but when pressed he could’t think of a reason why it wouldn’t work. Rusty’s a drummer’s drummer, possessing a more explosive style than Ron, whose reliance on fluidity and fast flowing feels gave the band a unique sliding rhythmic feel. Engine rooms are integral to great rock and roll and it's not devaluing the contributions of their predecessors, to say that the new guys have given Radio Birdman fresh legs.
This is a record that will surprise new ears as well as satisfy old ones. It’s distinctively Radio Birdman but the direction is more adventurous and the execution more finessed. There are sounds, and certainly song structures, that the band of 27 years ago might have been found wanting to deliver, if asked.
Lyrically, there’s less mythical theming – no Hand of Law coming down, all-seeing Living Eye or kids starting a New Race – and a clearer focus on personal situations and the politics of relationships. Not entirely so, it has to be said - Al Wazah is a Middle Eastern tea, for example, so its brotherhood are presumably sippers of hot beverages rather than instruments of jihad. But no local (Sydney or Michigan) landmarks are name-checked, so it’s more an international album than its predecessors. Nevertheless, there’s still enough ambiguity in the words to allow the sort of interpretation that Birdman has always reveled in - so enjoy the ride. The song-writing credits are evenly distributed with the usual Tek call-sign supplemented by Younger, Masuak, Hoyle (once) and Dickson.
“Zeno Beach” is a dark album in many places, populated by persons unknown trapped in damaged relationships or locked into emotional search and destroy missions. It’s much blacker than “Living Eyes”, whose sense of fun flew in the face of the band’s then-implosion. The band can’t be accused of being entirely po-faced (there’s enough light to deflect that) but the mirror shades remain in place and, for the most part, they ain’t playing it for laughs. The best lyrics are about death or sex anyway, if you hadn’t yet worked that one out.
Ongoing creative tensions are the stuff of legend in great bands and Radio Birdman is no exception, although a lot of that stuff is overdone in contemporary media accounts. Some issues surfaced, post-production, and centred on the album name and the tracking. Not a biggie when you're a Veteran of the Psychic Wars who spent time in the Van of Hate but maybe a measure of intra-band anxiety that the finished product had to be just right. What resulted works fine. There's a logic, for example, to the placement of "Connected" and the title tune at the end, the latter a Pip surf song with a lighter touch, driving rhythm and Surf City backing vocals. They lift the mood after the psychic warfare of “You Just Make It Worse” and the moody opus, “Heyday”.
On the tracking, “Heyday” sits at the centre of the song list and performs the same pacing function as “Man With Golden Helmet” on the second version of Radios Appears (the White Album). This is a song that has noticeably developed in live shows. It grows from skeletal framework of creeping bass, rim-shots and menacing kick drum, rolling and falling on Rob’s dread-ridden vocal and piano. Some wistfully-played Spanish guitar rounds it out. It's maybe equal contender as one of the best songs here, but there's hot competition.
For example, "You Just Make It Worse" has a monster riff and lyrics to match. There's a jackhammer crunch that most bands would envy. "Found Dead" probably outstrips it and anything else in the morbidity stakes, with images of a deceased mother face down in a pool after being released from prison. You'll wonder where this one is going with its rolling keyboards and guitars, and its brooding mid-tempo burn works a treat.
The engaging “Die Like April” is a curious beast, a strangely (for Birdman) folk-based song with tinges of progressive rock. It’s been compared to “Forever Changes”-period Love and it’s a fair call, and I almost expected Ian Anderson to hop up on one leg and lay down some flute. Of course, Jethro Tool couldn’t hold a candle to this and they were always more dim than dark. It's the sort of song that sticks out on the album like hickory weed growing out of a crack in an inner-urban street, yet works so well in the overall context and is instantly compelling.
Excursions outside the frame of preconceptions like that underline that there was always more to Radio Birdman than the popular media misconceptions they've lived down over the years. “Zeno Beach” should dispel those old Stooges/MC5 copyist accusations which, “TV Eye” apart, always had more to do with the covers played live than the recorded output. One of the first people outside the immediate band circle to wrap her ears around this (not a Birdman fan) described it simply as a great rock and roll record. And that, rather than as an historical document, is how it should be viewed.
It’s a tough call separating “Remorseless” and the “Nuggets”-flavoured “Hungry Cannibals” as my favourite rocker so I’ll reserve my vote for now (and it'll change from day to day anyway). "Cannibals" is a big storming beat against a background of acid-punk keys - the sort of territory Birdman had a shot at in "Cryin' Sun" - but this time it hits the drop zone, dead centre. It has a droning Jim Dickson-penned intro that originally belonged somewhere else. What follows will convince that, yes, death IS just a drumbeat away.
"Remorseless" cuts in like a death ride down a giant Waimea Bay right-hander, all surf tone guitar and churning rhythms that only let up to admit the lead break. It would have had my vote for opening track rather than "We've Come Too Far".
If the "classic" surf-meets-hi-energy Birdman sound is what you’re seeking (something that many say "Descent Into The Maelstrom" embodies), look no further than this.
Stinging guitars are central to “Locked Out”, another knee-shaker that gives flight to the sort of instrumental interplay that was buried on past records. “Connected” mines the same seam. This is a brace of tunes for students of the Chris Masuak-Deniz Tek guitar axis.
I was saying to several people that this sounds more like a New Christs record than a solo Tek effort and that's probably down to Rob Younger's vocals. Younger is more a singer these days than when the band was around in the '70s, when all a singer could do was belt it out and hope for the best, battling shitty PAs and even shittier foldback. Rob will probably want to re-record his part next year but this’ll do me. Do your own research and you'll find vindication in the performance on "Al-Wazah" or "Heyday".
"Zeno Beach" is a focused, fully-realised effort. Brutal, beautiful stories, told with power and intensity in equal amounts. Lift the hood, have a look and take it for a ride. If there's a rival for Album of the Year it'll need to get itself into gear.