“Who will save rock ‘n’ roll?” ask the Dictators, who’ve been trying hard for 25 years. Well, ladies and gentlemen, here’s the answer: ZEN GUERRILLA. But don’t take my word for it, cuz words are dry little lifeless approximations, refractions of the soul. And if ya rev ’em up just right they might get yer panties wet, but goddamn if a bit o’ ZG don’t work every time!! First time I saw ’em some jerk saw fit to masturbate me for most of the show, which was OK for a while until it wasn’t. That was when I noticed that my boyfriend’s hands were occupied with his beer and cigarette, so whose were massaging my mons, motherfucker?! I decked the guy and started a brawl, thereby winning me an introduction to the best rock ‘n’ roll band in the world.
Here‘s your introduction: Zen Guerrilla are composed of four really tall guys who’ve been converting tender shoots far and wide with their bighearted blues/punk/gospel/soul for 10 years. Something for everyone, right? Right! Even Grandma down in Kansas empties the Christmas money from the Jack Daniels bottle to buy one of ZG’s T-shirts. And so should you! But the trick is, you gotta see it to believe it.
Zen Guerrilla have always had a hard time pouring the ecstatic evangelical experience of their live show into vinyl’s shallow grooves, and their latest, Shadows on the Sun, is no different. It’s their strongest outing to date—a good catechism to prepare the listener for his/her baptism—but no substitute for the real deal.
Shadows is loud and heavy—sometimes so heavy it verges on ponderous. But after years of precious pop, who’s complaining? Opening track “Barbed Wire” blows the roof off with ZG’s quintessential brand of overwrought, otherworldly Baptist revival-tent rawk, as Rich Millman’s dissonant chords and obsessive-compulsive guitar runs wrestle Marcus Durant’s distorted shiver-inducing vocals. Shadows has more than a few such nouveau spirituals, jousting with all-out ’70s anthems like the psychedelic “Grafitti Hustle,” on which Marcus plays both tour guide and James Brown, showing us around Philadelphia in all its sonic splendor. The pace changes with the trippy trance-dance “Subway Transmissions,” hearkening back to Guerrilla’s East Coast infancy, and “Evening Sun,” a slow drag that’s already a staple on classic rock stations in an alternate universe.
Thankfully, the boys wised up and threw in a live track: “Fingers,” the number-one blues song of the new century. Drummer Andy Duvall and bassist Carl Horne bash out seductive swamp-creature rhythms that pummel your ears like a lead zeppelin, poking, prodding, and teasing Millman til he staggers around hanging onto his hollow-bodied empty-heart guitar for dear life while it wails, screams, stutters, and sighs. This guy obviously plays heavy metal in his dreams, but awake he channels Bo Diddley and the same ol’ Chuck Berry stuff everybody uses. He’s possessed by something more, though—some autistic devil or angel that, given a chance, ‘ll possess you, too.
Then there’s Marcus, my bet for the second coming. Six-foot-seven of howlin’ wolf, shakin’ his hands at the heavens, at you—he’s an MC5 messiah, souped-up with all the soul the state of Delaware or even Pennsylvania could muster. A groupie chick I know marveled at a one-night stand with Marcus, askin’ me, “Did ya know his father is black?” Exactly! The guy’s got black-as-night blues in his bowels and is given to bellowing about it all night long. His rock quivers, cooks, moans, and shakes. And what it does to the female of the species is indescribable. Hallelujah!
Another platter fresh outta Seattle (Zen Guerrilla are on Sub Pop) and sporting a similar vaguely simian theme (Chaka is the little monkey boy from Land of the Lost, see, and “guerrilla” sounds like “gorilla”) has my netherlands all swelled-up baboon style and the distant control center wondering what is up with that town?! Seattle’s been comfortably yupp-and-coming, frothing with money and latté foam, for much of the last decade. Then all of a sudden they have riots and earthquakes and bands like Scared of Chaka (who just relocated there from Albuquerque).
Chaka’ve got an equally kinetic live show, but where ZG excel in the testimonial and the transcendent, these monkeys got songwriting fortitude unseen in the underground for 15 years. Lead guy Yanul Hernandez knows his pop rocks and is a guitar virtuoso to boot: I once heard him embellish Mickey and Sylvia’s 1957 hit “Love Is Strange”—á la Johnny Thunders! Now Hopeless Records has released what is threatened to be the last Scared of Chaka bit o’ wild honey, and it is perfect. Two out of two Voice reporters agree: Crossing with Switchblades is the record of the year.
The band’s long-standing (seven-album) identity crisis between balls-out punk and sugary paeans to Blondie, Devo, and the MC5 adds up to an incredibly listenable mix. And whereas most bands couch a strong single or two in so much filler, Scared of Chaka deliver a true album. Crossing with Switchblades screams with addictive pleasures, sequenced with a connoisseur’s taste for coherence that, like super sex, leaves you soooo satisfied, but a few hours later ya just gotta do it again.
Switchblades is also one of the best breakup records since X imploded. The mood vacillates between frenetic screamers like “Girls Like You,” “You’re Fired,” and “Shake It (Oh Yeah!),” a James Brown karaoke bit by a psychopath (that’d be drummer Ron Skrasek), and expertly crafted sad love songs like “Why Are You Weird?,” “My New One,” and “Who’s to Know”—the kind that get girls starin’ bleary-eyed at the wall, wondering, wishing, “Is this song about me??” And the indecipherable lyrics’ll never tell.
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on October 2, 2001