As synthwave hit its stride over the past few years, it’s largely been a flood of the club-friendly, dancy variety. Acts like GosT, Carpenter Brut, Com Truise, Dan Terminus, and many, many others have carried the mantle, populating the scene with producers who fit a generally homogenous archetype. Somewhere along the way, the “band” approach to this style got left in the dust. It’s as if synth rock has been erased from possibility. It’s peculiar that the influence of older groups like Goblin or Trans Am haven’t seeped into the bigger synthwave hivemind, even as prog and post rock are more widely embraced – and embracing of the almighty synthesizer. Modern acts like Infinity Shred or 65daysofstatic would seem to be logical candidates to have some influence in this genre, too. Short of synth-doom labelmates Pinkish Black – or on the total opposite end of the spectrum, feelgood synth rockers The Midnight – there’s a considerable void of synthwave “bands.” The absence of this dynamic seems like a glaring oversight, knowing full-well how real and significant this interplay can be. But, it’s hard to complain when Zombi keeps pumping out sure things like 2020.
Since their debut with 2004’s Cosmos, multi-instrumentalist Steve Moore and drummer A.E. Paterra have been refining and expanding their instrumental electro prog sound to ever-higher planes of highly atmospheric, nod-inducing bliss. After 2009’s dense and massive peak Spirit Animal, the duo dialed things back on subsequent releases. Running with a leaner focus on drums, synth and bass, 2011’s krautrock-y Escape Velocity and 2015’s spaceprog horrorscape Shape Shift achieved two very different vibes with smaller palettes, settling into versions of something more akin to the danceable synthwave that’s all the rage as of late. It’s obvious they make a point to be unpredictable and to offer surprise with each release, they haven’t really taken the same approach twice. So, as you may expect, it takes all of 30 seconds for Zombi to set the tone on 2020. When “Breakthrough & Conquer” gets going with the guitar chugging and 80s metal leads, it hits with a distinctly different energy than its spacy, austere predecessor. It’s expressive. It’s lively. It’s uplifting.
As luck would have it, followup track “Earthscraper” is a damn near whiplash-inducing brake check back to the sedate, drum-and-bass-driven creep they perfected on Shape Shift. There’s something so satisfying about the single synth note “intro” prior to the guitars and drums crashing in, especially how it hints at these hanging, delayed accents later in the track – all met with these incredibly gratifying cymbal crashes. Likewise, “No Damage” is anchored on a sludgy groove that’s riddled with punctuating cymbals that underscore its wonky rhythm. It’s a testament to the less-is-more, measured, spacious, and downtempo style. Later in the album tracks like “Family Man” and “First Flower” push this to the extreme with their heaviest, doomiest material to date. Shape Shift often hinted at this kind of heavy, but it came off much more sterile and celestial with icier synths and rounder bass tones. There’s something a little nasty and gritty about 2020 that hasn’t come to light in quite some time – if ever.
Overall, 2020’s tracks are much tighter compositions than their earlier work, rarely breaking the five-minute mark. It’s better to be too little than too much (which sucks sometimes), but it’s a rational middle ground when considering the intimidating sprawl of their earlier work. It allows listeners enough time to get caught up in the groove, get acquainted with the evolving variations on each track, and move on with the next with little chance for boredom. The sequencing plays into this nicely, too, emphasizing variety and contrast. “XYZT” and “Fifth Point of the Pentangle” righly pick things up at the midpoint. “XYZT” lends levity with an ever-surging cyclical groove backed by wide, beaming synths and a pulsating sequenced undercurrent. Paterra’s work is much more locomotive here, cruising along on the ride and striking at opportune moments. It’s taken a step further on “Fifth Point of the Pentangle,” where he cuts loose in the proggier side of their sound, taking control and freely sketching in patterns and fills, feeling more like a brief drum solo than a proper song. Throughout, Paterra’s phrasing is totally on-point and lends a pronounced character to each track on 2020, regularly hammering in memorable fills and playing with incredible feel, rounding corners with some truly ear-turning transitions. It’s a vibe that reinforces that “band” feel, where each riff sees a variation or change to pique curiosity. It’s a human touch.
If that wasn’t enough, closer “Thoughtforms” kind of brings it all together in a sort of post-rock version of Zombi, where gliding leads span evolving waves of glassy synth. Moore’s re-introduction of guitar makes for some really inspiring and evocative work here specifically, but it also lends a welcome measure of treble that keeps things on a tilt away from the standard synthwave tones and hues, achieving some moving dynamics and ambiance. Moore’s cinematic work comes full circle on this effort. In addition to more prominent guitar features, the textural variety in the synth tones is similarly vibrant and layered. It plays well with the prog angle of this album, but also ratchets up the drama and epicness in every track. Whether by the massive and pivoting “Earthscraper,” the glacial and all-but Carl Sagan-approved “Mountain Ranges,” or the aforementioned “Thoughtforms” 2020 becomes a more limber and articulate work than anything they’ve done over the last decade; the scope of this record is vast.
Zombi have simultaneously diversified and concentrated their sound on 2020. For the uninitiated, this is a wonderful place to start as you’ll get an à la carte experience that can serve as a launching point to any part of their prior albums (all of which stand on their own merits and are worthy of your time). It may prove itself to be too proggy for those with an ear for danceable, tireless beats. It’s certainly much deeper, contemplative, and doom-forward than most of what’s in that particular scene, but it might serve as a nice change of pace to those fatiguing on the oversaturation of neon and cheesy movie samples. Those familiar with the group can experience how nearly two decades of work can culminate in something that’s both comfortable and elevated. 2020 is another unique addition to the Zombi catalog and a most welcome return of synth rock mastery.