Some albums are a long time coming; production, schedules, lack of inspiration, and much more can all lead to a delayed release. When that happens, there are two possible results. Either the eventual release falls short of expectations which have been brewing for so long or the album is elevated by catharsis and a long wait reward. Happily, the latter seems to be the case with ZETA‘s debut. Born from a collaboration between Katie Jackson, Paul Antonio Ortiz (AKA Chimp Spanner), and Dan Tompkins (TesseracT, ex-Skyharbor), the album is a retrowave trip tinged with a slew of 90’s pop influences. The wait for the album has tallied years of teasers, singles, artwork, and baited breath for a collaboration that seemed too good to be true. Finally, as of today, it has been released to the world and lo! we are pleased, for it is good.
At the basis of the album lies a harmony that shouldn’t be unexpected to fans of Tompkins’s career beyond TesseracT. The virtuoso vocalist has never been secretive about his connection with pop musicians as is evident from stuff like his Michael Jackson cover or his work with Jon Gomm on Chaka Khan’s immortal “Ain’t Nobody”. On ZETA, the ever so distinctive Tompkins timbre rings sweet and true above layered synths, punchy kick drums, and an overall fascination with neon. Something about the two just seems to click; Tompkins’s voice has a high register at its base and, even when devoid of his signature screams, contains a lot of punch.
All of this brings us to the second point which makes ZETA work. It would have been very easy for Jackson and Ortiz to rely on Tompkins to ferry them over, both musically and commercially. After all, his name is one of the more well known in the online community to which an album like ZETA’s debut appeals. Instead, they wrote and produced great instrumentation which stands on its own. “Lock and Key” is a great example this; the intro synths as well as the rest of the lines which duck and weave across the tracks’s soft choruses and verses are all excellent, both in tone and in composition. They give the tone and feel of the track its meat, solidifying ZETA’s interest in the more noir side of retrowave inhabited by projects like Scandroid or Le Matos.
These sounds, founded in dream and wonder, are greatly amplified by the excellent guitar solos strewn throughout the album. They lend the release a touch of the fantastic and grandiose, just like their role in the 80’s when this type of music was originally born. Like those precursor releases, ZETA can and do certainly dabble in the darker side of things. Tracks like “Fires in the Snow” and the gritty “Gates of Hell” channel a more Judge Dredd feel to their 80’s dystopia, benefiting mightily from the raspier sides of Tompkins’s range, including a more expressive moment on “Gates of Hell” which should please all TesseracT fans listening. These tracks, heavily featuring the electric guitar, do much to vary up the sound and makeup of the album. As they are cleverly poised in the middle of the album, they refresh the listening experience and make sure it gains some much needed dynamism.
Which is perhaps a hint at what underpins the success of ZETA; this release was clearly made by people who understand not only the composition and execution of music but also the trappings in which it should come in. While ZETA won’t blow the minds of anyone not already somewhat convinced by the efforts of retrowave, it will certainly appeal to those who have already dabbled in the neon-tinged waters of the imagined 80’s. It is an expressive and deep album, containing much to be discovered by dedicated listening. Unlike too much of the genre, it is also refreshingly well constructed, making the immersive listening experience that much more powerful. Oh, and there’s also the buildup intro to “Elysian Fields” which is all I’ve ever wanted from a Tompkins track. Go listen to this album please, see you in bright green cyberspace.