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Zazen Boys Land in America With a Solid Thump

October 9, 2008
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Zazen Boys | Image by City Paper Digi-Cam

International music publicists have a bizarre talent for landing press releases in the in boxes of even the most occasional freelance music journalists; last time (for me), it was an agent hyping Iranian pop-punk band Hypernova’s unprecedented U.S. “invasion.” The primary hook of the blurb concerning Japanese label Matsuri Studio’s Zazen Boys was the fact that Flaming Lips producer Dave Fridmann had recorded and mixed their latest release, Zazen Boys 4, at his coveted Tarbox Road Studios. Additionally, the alert mentioned that a Tokyo film crew would be documenting the start of the band’s first U.S. tour, last Thursday, Oct. 2, at the Talking Head.

Following white Christmas lights through an alley to the right of Sonar, I arrived at the Head and caught the tail end of local opener the Jumpcuts’ instrumental jam. This trio of two guitarists and a somewhat shaky drummer protracted a pleasing-in-spurts exploration of lush feedback and chugging rock rhythms. As this was the band’s first performance, a degree of timidity or uncertainty held the players back from really bopping around. However, their noise landscapes reached more than a few solid grooves, which gave the group substantial promise of future good.

Next, Geist, Baltimore/Annapolis’ very own J-Pop/goth-metal purveyor, hit the stage in all manner of black, leather, spikes, and alt-tailored mod suits. Led by a young woman who looked like an anime heroine, with blond hair dyed partially green, the band gave pristine renditions of guttural sludge, doom, and grind, and from time to time propelled songs into victorious video-game anthems with Japanese lyrics. But, sadly, the very talented band lacked the slightest bit of rawness; not a single mistake or other touch of humanness came into play, and this only made us crave a restoration of cool from the headliner.

Zazen Boys calmly set up their gear and worked with the club’s soundman, giving the much fuller audience–warmed by the arrival of at least 10 more people–a few minutes to ponder the possibilities of the band’s sound, especially in light of their funky but unpretentious attire. Apparently, the band had borrowed equipment for this tour from fellow Japanese rock outfit Peelander-Z, and the bass drum bore the smiling face of one of those locally beloved commanders of fun.

After a brief introduction in delightfully accented English–”From Matsuri Studio, Tokyo, we are Zazen Boys!”–the quartet first pounded away with some mathy hardcore and obnoxiously endearing noise. In a far-fetched conception, this portion of the band’s set was like California’s Health, but with dramatically fewer loops and noise explosions; the drummer was adequately primal but keen to all the subtle transitions of art-rock composition.

But as the Boys softened a few of the hard edges and brought out funk fit for dancing shoes, it was possible to view them more accurately as disciples of the Dismemberment Plan, or even George Clinton. The hit “Weekend,” with its juicy slap bass, pornographic guitar noise, and bilingual (nearly spiritual) party lyrics, made the show definitely feel like the “buzzworthy” arrival of foreign rock stars. “I Don’t Wanna Be With You” was a delicious club number with hip-swerving runway synthesizers and pitch-altered Dan Deacon-esque vocals. It was unexpectedly mind-blowing, a show more than worth the in-box clutter.