Out there in the Vermont snow sits Zammuto’s self-built studio. Even if you hadn’t known that the shack was a recording studio, you’d still likely believe that something was at stake there, that the building was meant to be more than what it actually is. Your eye is drawn to it. The honey-colored wood contrasts the predominantly blinding white image that serves as the cover to the band’s new album, and something most certainly is happening on the inside.
When I interviewed Nick Zammuto back in 2012 before his live set as leader of his newly created act, entitled Zammuto, he discussed the idea of recording music in this studio: “Some days I feel like a pioneer, out on the frontier and going like, ‘This is awesome!’ and just having fun, and other days it’s just like slamming my head against the wall. Nothing sounds good to me. ‘Why am I doing this? This sucks.’ But that’s how records get done. It’s sort of a painful process, but it’s punctuated by the moments that are pure bliss.”
That last line could very well describe the band’s self-titled debut, recorded in that very studio. The album is a collection of feelers that allow listeners access into the band’s unconventional DIY techniques, similar to those of Nick’s previous gig as a member of The Books. It comprises beats formed by tattered vinyl grooves, vocal sampling and filtering, wild instrumentation, and other eccentricities. That album ultimately lives on those eccentricities, however, working best as a funky experimental record. You pick your favorite parts and leave the rest of its madcap, uneven execution at the door.
Nick has since noted the difficulties of recording Zammuto by his lonesome in that studio, and in the two years between that self-titled release and the project’s sophomore effort, Anchor, he has made that studio into a place where he can harness his creativity with the rest of the band, and Zammuto is better for it.
Quite frankly, Anchor is the album Nick has been striving to make his entire career. While still drawing from the same DIY techniques that defined Zammuto’s self-titled debut, he’s finally zeroed in on the right concept and tonality this time around, resulting in a refreshing, aurally interesting, and hugely winning listening experience. The fact that the album never feels singularly Nick is part of its success as well; the band (rounded out by brother Mikey, Sean Dixon, and Nicholas Oddy) gels together here as Zammuto, The Entity.
With a musical palette that spans multiple genres (New Wave, prog rock, industrial, jazz fusion), Anchor is just an incredibly engaging listen. Zammuto really makes an effort to widen their accessibility without sacrificing flow, evidenced by the trifecta of songs at Anchor‘s middle section, “Don’t Be A Tool,” “Electric Ant,” and “IO,” which starts as a meditative instrumental and ultimately ventures into minimalist industrial, but not before segueing into Devo-inspired post-punk, all without skipping a beat.
But Anchor’s wealth doesn’t sit squarely in the middle; it lasts from beginning to end. The album embarks on a moody, albeit glowing, course with “Good Graces” before following up with the fuzzy and glitchy “Great Equator,” reminding everyone of Zammuto’s penchant for peculiar instrumentation. It glides easily into “Hegemony,” a fantastic fusion track showcasing Dixon’s drumming and time signature-shifting abilities.
For all of that track’s wild ambition, it marries nicely next to “Henry Lee (Trad.),” a prismatic stunner that gives listeners a full moment to catch ourselves and awe in its glimmer. Zammuto’s smart to not keep us there for too long, though, as we dive back into explorative territory with what is arguably Anchor’s most accessible track, “Need Some Sun.” Mikey produces an awesomely catchy bassline with a click beat that continues to expand the album’s textural scope, and we also see Nick at his most confident. His vocals are not overly processed as they were on the first LP, which means they can now be brought to the forefront and his lyrics placed front-and-center as he delivers line after line with punch and flavor.
The album’s final moments are marked with post-rock nuances. With gazing and spacial instrumentation that properly reflect the LP’s previous tracks, which had led listeners through a kaleidoscope of sounds and ideas, the ending maintains the notion that Anchor is an album of serenity, one whose abstract structures and leanings can actually result in a thing of beauty.
Who would have thought that that same shack of a studio, which is now visually cemented — or “anchored,” if you will — on the album’s cover, would have produced what is far and away the most realized work in Nick’s music career and, maybe, all of 2014? One listen through this album will prompt you to take another look at the studio on its cover, and you’ll realize that it appears equally distant and close.
That’s not because of some fine photographic trickery. It’s because Zammuto, built on avant-garde ambitions, has finally come into its own here. With a sound that utilizes all kinds of instruments and spans many genres, its members have found a space that is uniquely theirs, one based on a concept that is pragmatic but still rife with new and interesting ideas, a tonality that is rich, and a flow that is resoundingly organic. Those willing to discover it and understand it will ultimately find themselves enjoying a rewarding and uplifting experience.
Anchor is out on September 2nd from Temporary Residence.