Photos and Review by Chandler Mays
Every once in while, a show comes along where afterwards, you say to yourself, “Well, I haven’t seen THAT before.” Zammuto at The Earl was one of these shows.
The opening act was aptly titled “Duet For Theremin and Lap Steel”, where Scott Burland and Frank Schultz used these two instruments to create a mystifying, abstract composition of ambient soundscapes. Schultz used pedals and electronic pitch bending to create sounds you never thought could be produced by a lapsteel. The theremin is a black rectangular prism with an antennae extending upwards from the corner which produces sounds that come from motions and hand gestures as opposed to physical contact. Burland used his theremin like the monolith from 2001: A Space Odyssey, coaxing extra-terrestrial synth noises with the wave of a hand, or the flick of a finger. It was truly mesmerizing to witness. Accompanying their performance was a projection of experimental 16mm footage that reminded me of a Stan Brakhage film. There was dark, moody imagery that perfectly accompanied the haunting music. Scott and Frank improvised a beautifully unsettling horror film score that coaxed the listener to zone out and really explore the depths of the mind. Then, like a dream upon awakening, the short 20-minute set was over, causing you to ponder where your mind had traveled to.
Zammuto took the stage shortly after and immediately introduced us to a world of stunningly original music that was inviting, yet altogether strange. I’d imagine the soundtrack to a Dr. Seuss book would sound similar to this. Zammuto is the new project of Nick Zammuto, who has recently left behind his critically acclaimed project, The Books. Nick’s new musical venture is impressively different from The Books stylistically. While he still has a proclivity for experimenting with vocals, lyrics, samples, and song structures, he has applied these inclinations to a unique live band sound that I would call progressive synth-rock. Zammuto’s music, just like The Books, is truly one of a kind, and I am elated to have experienced their live show; So much so, in fact, that I’m seriously debating catching them again when they swing through Nashville in October.
The first song Zammuto played is Groan Man, Don’t Cry. The skillfully dexterous drummer, Sean Dixon, lead the charge with syncopated stick tapping, and then Gene Back started this funky guitar riff handed down from the guitar gods themselves. This is the kind of riff that never leaves your head for days on end, and you truly don’t want it to leave. Nick’s brother, Mikey Zammuto followed suit on the bass, then Sean filled in the rest of the complicated rhythms on drums. Nick’s vocals were modulated and layered, singing the lamentations of a ‘groan man’ who doesn’t understand the solution to his melancholy state. Nick sings “When you’re on your own, leave the past behind. When you walk alone, relax, unwind.” Just when you think the song can’t get any better, in sneaks these bouncy synth-arpeggios that fade up and fall in line perfectly with the song. I was so surprised and excited by this bizarre new experience, that I wanted the song to go on forever.
Zammuto’s music was also accompanied by projected visuals that would display in synchronization with the rhythms. Before one song, Nick says, “This next song is about chronic back pain, and it’s called Yay.” We were then treated to bizarre and colorful pictures of people grabbing their hurt backs. Again, Sean started the song with a funky high-hat rhythm coupled with slams on the snare during the off-beats. The pictures of people with back-pain would cut directly on the snare hits, which started to create a psychosomatic effect where I could feel pings in my spine on cue with the pictures flashing. It was quite a unique sensory experience. Also, Nick’s vocals were modulated through the computer to create a skittish stuttering sound, and the bass and synths kicked in to form a glorious song that conjured images of a robot marching band.
The warped and auto-tuned vocals by Nick truly induced quite an excited feeling in my gut. Zammuto’s style is experimental, yet still something I can groove to, and that’s not something that comes along every day. Their impressive cover of Paul Simon’s 50 Ways To Leave You Lover was truly a wonder to behold. My favorite song they performed was Zebra Butt. The beat reminded me of a Blue Man Group rhythm, and the 80’s-sounding bassy synth-arrangement was so funky that some involuntary booty-shakin’ occurred. I feel sorry for whoever stood behind me. The vocals on this track were programmed by Nick as a robot woman that sounded like a voice you’d hear from a text-to-speech generator for the visually impaired. They were edited perfectly in rhythm to the music. The strange robot lady chanted, “I’ve got it planned to the last man, while you’re sitting there acting like a horse’s ass, man.” The entire song was accompanied by projected pictures of… you guessed it, zebra butts. The performance was essentially absurd humor coupled with monumental badassery. I honestly didn’t know whether to start tap-dancing or stand there with my jaw dropped.
Some of Zammuto’s songs were performed along with 80’s Home videos and infomercials selling useless items like magic wands or Tahitian Noni Juice. These videos seemed initially pointless, yet once put into context with Zammuto’s innovative sound, you somehow found beauty and meaning in this otherwise banal imagery. Through this crazy collage of visuals and music, you began to catch glimpses of the ‘big picture’, or of human nature in all of it’s glory, from young innocence to greed and corruption, from insanity to happiness.
This audio-visual experience is quite similar to the feelings you get from The Books at their best, which is why I strongly suggest that you see Zammuto live, because the experience transcends music and media to become something new and original. The music is so crisp and clean, to where you can hear every single instrument and noise perfectly. Nothing is muddled with distortion. Every sound has a place, no sound seems unnecessary, and the compositions turn your brain to ’11’ while making you want to dance. It’s a show for the active mind, and to truly appreciate it, your full attention is required. It is weird yet inviting. The vocals are alien, yet familiar. It is sensible insanity. To use the words of Captain Murphy from Sealab 2021, “It’s like a koala bear crapped a rainbow in my brain!”
I think that it is very important that bands like Zammuto can successfully bring their music to the masses, because these bands play an integral role in the future of music. They constantly remind us that we haven’t heard it all yet, and I hope we never do.
Full Gallery after the jump…