In hindsight, Zazen Boys' first album was much of a transitional piece. While still deserving praise, its tendency to brashly plod unsteady ground is only now highlighted by the thriving, comparatively cohesive monster that is Zazen Boys II. The difference between the two albums is quite frankly shocking, and the fact that they were released within the same year only affirms suspicion that Zazen Boys 1 was just a warm up. This is the band as they are meant to be heard, and god damn is it good.
Vocalist and songwriter Mukai Shuutoku has finally come into his own after nearly ten years with his former band, Number Girl. And while most of Zazen Boy's songs are still built around Ahito Inazawa's slamming drums, the compositions are more ambitious, skipping from punk inflected hip-hop to punk inflected blues to, well, punk inflected prince impersonations. In short, the raw energy that has always made Mukai's projects special is still alive and well; the band has simply cut their excess fat, making a vicious, unflinching whole.
A host of fresh elements also act as a sort of sonic glue, filling in previously empty spaces. The album opens with the unmistakable pulse of a drum machine, accented by vintage synth stabs and a rolling bass riff. It's immediately clear that Shuutoku is ready to dispel any preconceived notions about his new outfit. Fittingly enough, the second track showcases Sheena Riingo's vocal talents, laying down a bratty chorus that wouldn't be out of place in a Jay-Z single. The Japanese pop queen appears sporadically throughout the album, injecting an interesting air of high pitched femininity amidst Shuutoku's angry snarls. One might assess that Sheena's inclusion is some kind of marketing ploy to attract new fans, but the album progresses without missing a beat, making it difficult to detect anything beyond sincerity. Zazen Boys are extremely successful at interpreting new sounds and genres through their skewed filter, but again, you never get the sense of superficial unease.
Due to the sheer intensity of each member's performance, they are able to pound out traditional blues riffs, mark the beginning of sides A and B with brief programmed interludes, and generally expand their style from within. All the while, Shuutoku continues to develop his unique vocal approach. His half rapped, half intoned rants are as vicious as ever, giving Zazen Boys an immediately recognizable sound; one that might be gimmicky if it wasn't so cathartic.
Each listen reveals new hijinks and rhythms, most carefully centered in songs like "Cold Beat," which establishes a frantic instrumental interplay, recalling a more accessible take on American math rock. The song also hosts Zazen Boys' second drum solo; this time a lean, slightly embellished interpretation of the tracks main beat. By the end, I'm convinced that Inazawa is one of the fiercest rock drummers alive. His musical exchange with Shuutoku always shouldered Number Girl's core, and it is no different here.
Whatever Zazen Boys do in the future, its hard to imagine them trumping Zazen Boys II, but then again, I felt similarly about their first release, so we'll see. For now, my only hope is that Mukai Shuutoku and all of his projects, past and present, start getting a few more spins overseas, because once you catch on, man does this stuff rock.
1. Zazen Bo
2. Crazy Days Crazy Feeling
3. No Time
5. You Make Me Feel So Good
6. Cold Beat
7. Kuroi Shitagi
9. Zazen Bo II
13. Chie Chon's Landscape
14. Roppon no Kurutta Hagane no Shindoo
15. My Crazy Feeling