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Thursday, July 05, 2007

Smashing Pumpkins: "Zeitgeist"

On December 2, 2000, I threw my hands into the air triumphantly. I jumped up and down, shouted, cheered, and I even danced a little. On that day, Smashing Pumpkins played their farewell show at The Metro. Despite the band having helped define my early adolescence, they haunted my ears during the last few years of the 20th century. Over the years, I had grown less enchanted with the band's music and more frustrated with front man Billy Corgan's vocal stylings. So on that glorious winter day in 2000, I celebrated the fact that the band would no longer be around to destroy my memories. I could now remember my pre-1996 Pumpkins without the constant distraction of new albums and singles. Then on June 21, 2005, Mr. Corgan unofficially announced that he planned on reuniting the band to create a new album and I could feel myself dying a little inside. So now, after 7 years of silence, Smashing Pumpkins are back. And not only has their lineup changed, but my opinion of them as well.

As expected, the Pumpkins have undergone a major change in their sound. Their strong alt-rock sound of the early 90s that I cherished is long gone, replaced now with a heavier, progressive feel. This is most clearly evidenced by "Zeitgeist's" centerpiece, "United States," a sprawling 10-minute epic that would be a dead-ringer for Tool if it weren't for Corgan's nasally vocals. Even the album's softer, more poignant moments are almost insultingly loud. Drummer Jimmy Chamberlin sounds better on this album than he ever has before, perhaps unleashed by the band's new direction.

Since the band's breakup in 2000, my dislike of Billy Corgan's voice has only been reinforced by his solo album and the forgettable Zwan. So I wasn't expected to be wowed by Corgan when I began listening to "Zeitgeist," and unsurprisingly they're still not that impressive. Oftentimes, it sounds as if his vocals are on a completely different plane from the rest of the band. Take, for example, "Doomsday Clock," in which the disparity between the vocals and the band are at their most notable. At the same time, however, Corgan's vocals have a peculiar appeal to them that only reveals itself as the album progresses. I was surprised to find that even though Corgan's vocals bothered me as the album began, I was completely fine with them by the time the album finished. They hardly perturb me at all now.

The album begins with the highly-impressive "Doomsday Clock" in which Corgan foretells the downfall of the civilized world, singing "Kafka would be proud to find out I'm certain of the end, it's the means that has me spooked!" Chamberlin's excellent drumming not only gets the song off to a great start, but it carries it throughout it's length. "That's the Way (My Love Is)" is less impressive, all around. Billy's vocal performance is lackluster at best, and his melody is forgettable. There is some redemption to be found in the synth-heavy instrumentation, however, though it's not enough to save the song in my opinion.

Fortunately, the next two tracks, "Tarantula" and "Starz" are enough to take your mind off of it. "Tarantula" is an unrelenting rock song that features a truly impressive guitar performance (seriously, someone make a phone call and get this song on the next Guitar Hero) and finds Billy singing "We are the real if real ever was. And just because we are the ruin of every living soul, we are surreal cause someone gave us up." The first time I heard it, I didn't care for it. Since then, it's become one of my favorites on the album. Moving on, despite the fact that "Starz" shares the name of a television network, it has quickly become my favorite song on "Zeitgeist." The part of the song when Billy sings "We are stars, we are," is so excellently produced that it quickly becomes ingrained in your memory. Add that to the undeniably awesome last 30-seconds of the song, and you have yourself one of the better Pumpkins songs of the last 15 years or so.

Other notable tracks on the album are "United States" (of course) and "Bring the Light" a blatantly religious song in which Billy sings "You'd spit upon my dust and mix my ash with your blood" just before revealing his subject as "Son of God." If the Tool inspiration wasn't clear to you on "United States," it should be apparent by the time the breakdown of this one comes around.

So what have I learned from "Zeitgeist?" I've learned that just because an artist or a band hasn't put out a respectable album in over a decade does not mean that they have "lost it." I've learned that I can actually handle Billy Corgan's vocals, even if it requires that I saturate my head with them. Most importantly, however, I've learned that Smashing Pumpkins are absolutely back! The band may have lost two very important members, but under the guidance of Billy Corgan and Jimmy Chamberlin, I'd say that Jeff Schroeder and Ginger Reyes are doing just fine. Despite the fact that "Zeitgeist" may be a few tracks too long (depending on which version of it you ultimately end up buying), it is without a doubt the best pure rock album of 2007 so far. This declaration comes to you courtesy of someone who wasn't expecting much of "Zeitgest" and ended up getting something great. For Smashing Pumpkins fans, it is a must-buy!

Recommended for fans of Smashing Pumpkins, even those who became disenchanted with the band after "Adore" and "Machina."

Key Tracks:
1. "Doomsday Clock"
2. "Tarantula"
3. "Starz"
4. "United States"
5. "Bring the Light"

7 out of 10 Stars


Jeff said...

you should download the bonus track "death from above" it's purty

A Medium said...

Nice pumpkins review. it seems we agree again.