Zomes makes the most of a handful of notes on new album
Published: April 6, 2011
Some listeners may say what Asa Osborne does as Zomes is “simple.” The songs, most within the usual few-minute pop-song range, are so spare and spartan, the components so few, that they might make even the most sugary power pop or the most monolithic drone sound like a tangled web in comparison. It’s not that deeper, more focused listening reveals some kind of compositional substrata; there’s no trickery. And considering how Osborne wrote guitar parts for Lungfish and, later, the Pupils, you can’t argue that he’s up to some winking concept with Zomes—writing music like this is nothing new. It is what it is.
Yet you might be compelled to probe it. That’s because it works when perhaps it shouldn’t. Or, more accurately, it just wouldn’t work in the hands of most musicians/composers. Accompanied by a muffled tom drum or barely audible field recording, Zomes is a collection of melodies, played on a basic keyboard or sometimes guitar, that use notes like some precious commodity of which the world is quickly running out, like that last little bit of jam Charlton Heston savors in Soylent Green. Saying that he makes these limited sounds count would be an understatement.
The songs are much like his paintings: blocky cutouts compiled from shapes that might’ve emerged from your own subconscious onto a notebook margin at some point and colors from a restrained palette that suggests an alternate-reality pastel (a good thing, mind you). You’re not so much wondering, What does it all mean?—though you’re welcome to. Instead, Osborne’s art is pleasing in an open and deeply felt sorta way wherein that pleasantry becomes its own meaning.
Perhaps it’s peculiar that Osborne’s songs and visual artwork can be both beautiful and strange without asking much of or testing the listener/viewer in the same kind of way that the avant-garde has trained us to. It’s just nice. His second studio album as Zomes, Earth Grid (Thrill Jockey), shows Osborne remains restrained. The sound palette remains much the same: synthesizers that hum more than sing and, when a bit more gravity is called for, an electric guitar appearing in what feels like those big concrete blocks that ight be used to counterweight a drawbridge.
The songs don’t get all that much more complicated than “Pilgrim Traveler,” on which a comparatively quick keyboard melody flits around the above-mentioned concrete, with a tom beating out more punctuation than rhythm. “Bloodlines” patrols the other end of the spectrum: two keyboard notes, each held for several measures, and alternating. Almost as a taunt or a self-aware tease of Osborne’s punk history, “Step Anew” leads in with 10 or so seconds of harsh electric guitar that flame out into yet another blissy synth melody.
Many of the songs on Earth Grid would feel incomplete without their peers on the record. Tracks on Zomes’ self-titled debut tended more to resolve within themselves; the starts and stops are more abrupt here. “Step Anew” is one of a few that feel totally self-contained; “Bloodlines” naturally feels like a segue. The five-odd-minute “Alec’s Anthem” takes that time and repeats just three notes, but games them ever so slightly as the song moves along, holding this or that note out a little longer—or way, way longer—or making an edge of guitar distortion swell just a bit on the next repeat. Or maybe that’s just in your head.
Zomes ultimately makes you process music a bit differently. As with a lot of experimental music, some listeners will latch on because simply because it’s unusual. From another angle, Zomes makes for a queer variety of psych music, or a kind of synthesizer folk. Or maybe some might enjoy it simply because those melodies are so good in the basic sense of being enjoyable to hear. Indeed, Osborne is amazing at writing naked melody like no one else.
But probably none of those angles works well enough with Zomes. It transcends all of them. It feels silly that music this stripped down and immediately easy to appreciate might call for a new way of listening, but even the avant-garde hasn’t really prepared us for this. Maybe all we can do then is listen and stop trying to explain.
> Email Michael Byrne