The Zombies were easily one of the most deserving of the myriad sixties rock outfits that were rediscovered after several decades of obscurity. While many critics are apt to extol the virtues of virtually any unknown commodity that resurfaces in the modern era, The Zombies more than merit their belated hype, as they're not only an immensely entertaining act but likewise a unique and idiosyncratic band with few analogues in this or any time period.
The band flouted their defiance of the conventions of their era, as they introduced an intellectual streak into rock and roll that had been conspicuously absent in the sixties music scene, not to mention their incorporation of classical elements into their music, a trailblazing practice that had been hitherto unheard of in the genre.
All of these considerable assets proved for naught on their debut, however, as record company honchos once again displayed their grotesque ignorance of all things artistic. Believing that every rock group, no matter how unique or different, should be positioned and marketed in precisely the same way, Begin Here was inundated with generic rock and R&B covers, styles of music that were not only not the group's forte but rather were completely incompatible with their artistic approach. Thus their performances on these numbers are clumsy and awkward, and Colin Blunstone's vocals are so ill-suited to the genre that the overall effect is quite simply embarrassing.
Thus half of Begin Here consists of abysmal covers. While the albums' originals are dramatically superior to these abominations, they're still far less sophisticated than the material that can be found on the band's later efforts.
There is an exception to this rule, namely the immortal, Argent-penned classic She's Not There, a song of a musical depth and complexity previously unheard of in rock music. While the track may very well be the first instance of baroque pop in the history of the industry, it may also mark the zenith of the style, as it's a lush, gorgeous song with brilliant, unforgettable melodies and irresistible hooks.
Despite the presence of this masterwork, however, Begin Here is a rather tepid listening experience. Chris White and, particularly, Rod Argent, already demonstrate an impressive songwriting acumen, but they had yet to truly refine their skills, and the result is one classic, six solid tunes and seven cringe-inducing covers, hardly an equation that's conducive to a first-rate album.
Fortunately the album is not only salvaged but rather transfigured into a near classic by the presence of seventeen stellar bonus tracks. Largely consisting of an array of A-sides and B-sides, many of these songs are bona fide masterpieces, filled with lush arrangements and stunning melodies.
The reason these bonus tracks are of such a high caliber is simple. The Zombies, when not being impressed upon by cretinous studio executives to work against their own strengths, were an amazing band, namely because they adhered to a formula that they both created and perfected. Their brand of baroque pop was not only cutting edge but also sublimely entertaining, and by embracing this musical mode they created some of the finest works of their era.
From the uber-hit Tell Her No to the brilliant She's Coming Home, Begin Here's bonus tracks represent the band at their near-best, and the result is a mediocre album elevated to dizzying heights years after its initial release. While She's Not There and Tell Her No were the band's only real commercial successes (Time Of The Season, ironically enough, didn't become a hit until the group had already disbanded), The Zombies were a profoundly gifted ensemble, and why mainstream success eluded a band capable of producing some of the catchiest works of the epoch is truly mystifying.
Thus over the course of one erratic listen The Zombies prove themselves to be inept at rock songs, brilliant baroque-pop songsmiths and specialists at the art of the hook. Furthermore, they also establish themselves as one of the most significant proto-art-rock outfits through their innate intellectual tendencies and experimental dabbling with classical music and other eclectic forms of music, while Argent revolutionizes the role of the organ in this or any genre.
The ultimate product of these factors is a superb listening experience that largely begins once the album proper is over, a record that's not only essential for its historical importance but also quite simply a brilliant collection of catchy pop songs. The group would continue to progress with tine, and Begin Here is an ideal introduction to the band, showcasing both their strengths and weaknesses in full force.
Perhaps the highly flawed nature of their debut Begin Here made The Zombies decide that full-length albums weren't their forte, or at the very least reconsider the commercial viability of producing any more in the immediate future, as the band spent the three years after the release of their lackluster first opus producing a plethora of singles, never exceeding the traditional A-side and B-side structure in scope or length. Unfortunately for The Zombies, none of these singles ever came close to duplicating the commercial success of She's Not There and Tell Her No, a truly mystifying phenomenon given that the vast majority of them rank amongst the best songs of their era.
This lack of success effectively sealed the band's fate, and the result was that when The Zombies finally got around to producing another full-fledged album they had already decided that it would be their last effort as an ensemble. With a mere two hits under their belt the band had little recourse save to disband, but at least they left a brilliant swansong to console their sadly limited, niche fanbase.
Unsurprisingly Odessey & Oracle enjoyed only a modicum of success, even after Time Of The Season blazed a trail up the charts (an event that sadly transpired after the band had already dissolved), but at least in recent years the album was 'rediscovered' and is currently regarded as an essential document in sixties rock and roll history, an honor that it richly deserves.
Given that record company executives doubtlessly anticipated little in the way of profit from The Zombies' final (or so they imagined) outing, they abstained from heavily interfering with the recording process as they had with Begin Here. The resulting product is an album that The Zombies actually wanted to make, as opposed to a series of mediocre R&B tunes and ill-advised covers. Every track on Odessey & Oracle is a Zombies original, and indeed the album showcases the band at their very best.
Argent and White are at the peak of their songwriting abilities on the album, topping even the best of their singles with the caliber of the material on Odessey & Oracle. Throughout the album the music remains complex yet accessible, incorporating classical influences without growing bombastic or pretentious.
Whereas the 'most intelligent band in rock' label that was ascribed to the band in their early days once exclusively applied to the complexity of their arrangements, on Odessey & Oracles their lyrics are finally catching up. Romantic clichés once abounded in the band's early work, but now even their love songs are imbued with a certain fundamental intelligence. While drawing inspiration from Faulkner may seem like a transparent attempt at appearing intellectual, at least the lyrics on that number, A Rose For Emily, retain a certain tender pathos that can be genuinely moving, and when the listener grows weary of overly serious subject matter he can enjoy the black comedy of tracks like the post-prison reunion Care Of Cell 44.
It's in the musical department that The Zombies truly distinguish themselves, however, delivering some of the best pop melodies of the sixties or, indeed, any era. The band's arrangements are as lush as ever, attaining new heights in the baroque-pop genre. One needn't be intimidated by Odessey & Oracle's critical-darling status, as there are plenty of lighter, more whimsical moments like I Want Her She Wants Me, but predictably enough it's the more ambitious content that truly demonstrates the brilliance of the album.
Tracks like Brief Candles and Beechwood Park are simply gorgeous beyond words, while numbers like Maybe After He's Gone and This Will Be Our Year are pop music of the highest order, catchy without being primitive or repetitive. Some have protested that Butcher's Tale (Western Front 1914) disrupts the flow of the album with its somewhat incongruous nature, but I would never object to a song of such a high caliber, and while Time Of The Season has been overexposed on classic rock radio and in sixties zeitgeist films alike, that doesn't dilute the absolute brilliance of the track.
Odessey & Oracle is quite simply pop music at its best: catchy, intelligent, creative, sophisticated, funny, moving, complex, accessible and, ultimately, unforgettable. Despite its age the music never feels dated, but rather has a timeless quality that serves it well even decades later. The album is essential for both sixties connoisseurs and casual pop fans alike, also affording a chance for a new generation to atone for the stupidity of their predecessors who failed to purchase the Zombies' singles and albums, thus causing an amazing group to disband when they were still at the peak of their abilities.
Unlike many of their more album-oriented contemporaries, the bulk of The Zombies' output was delivered in the form of singles. While The Zombies are renowned for their masterpiece Odessey & Oracle, that full-length opus was quite an anomaly in the band's catalogue, as becomes perfectly evident when one peruses their rather limited discography.
Typically, whenever a group's canon primarily consists of singles a completist is confronted with a frustration-inducing experience. Such is not the case with The Zombies, however, a fact that can likely be attributed to the group's markedly diminutive lifespan.
Thus collecting the complete works of The Zombies is hardly an insurmountable challenge. Unfortunately, however, it veers to the opposite extreme, as the band's limited catalogue has been reproduced so many times, be it in the form of bonus tracks or a plethora of overlapping compilations, that a collector will invariably end up with a considerable amount of redundant material.
This is the main flaw to be found in The Singles Collection, an otherwise nearly unimpeachable compilation of The Zombies' A and B sides. Despite only enjoying a modicum of success, the band's singles are nearly uniformly brilliant, never feeling the least bit dated or old-fashioned.
Unfortunately, given the number of different record labels that have distributed The Zombies' catalogue over the years, there's no coordination whatsoever between the myriad releases, resulting in a tremendous amount of overlap and redundancies. Therefore most of The Singles Collection's content can be found as bonus tracks on Begin Here, with five numbers culled from Odessey & Oracle for good measure.
This is a rather frustrating phenomenon for most frugal spenders, a brand of shopper generally not inclined to purchase a CD that only boasts a handful previously unowned songs. While tracks like She Does Everything For Me and the instrumental Conversation Off Floral Street are admittedly rather strong, few could be prevailed upon to buy an album solely on the basis of acquiring several songs of this nature, thus making the entire release eminently expendable.
Ergo, the question that naturally arises is which configuration of Zombies products would make the most sense for casual fans to obtain. Obviously Odessey & Oracle is essential, but whether to buy Begin Here or The Singles Collection poses quite the conundrum. Begin Here is vital for historical reasons, not to mention containing the bulk of the singles that appear on The Singles Collection, but the latter doesn't have its quality diluted by the presence of a multitude of mediocre covers. Thus it's really a matter of personal preference, though the entire situation could have been avoided were The Zombies' tracks distributed in a more logical manner.
Whichever way one procures them, however, the songs on The Singles Collection are absolutely necessary for all Zombies fans, along with all sixties-pop fans in general. Argent and White were simply brilliant songwriters, and while few of their singles match the quality of tracks on Odessey & Oracle they're still some of the finest examples of pop music that one is apt to find in this or any era. The Zombies' lack of financial success is truly baffling, but at least this commercial and critical oversight is finally, slowly but surely, being corrected by a new generation of rock appreciators.
While As Far As I Can See…, a collaboration between Rod Argent and Colin Blunstone, was the first time in decades that either had assumed the Zombies moniker, a mere few years before the two had released another joint effort. The reason that they gave for abstaining from donning that particular old hat the first time around but prominently displaying it on the second run-through was perfectly rational: they felt that, unlike its immediate predecessor, As Far As I Can See… closely resembled the style of their seminal art-rock outfit. This explanation ceases to be rational, however, once one has actually listened to the album, at which point any attempt at finding parallels between classic Zombies material and their post-millennial fare seems like a convincing argument for at least partial dementia.
It's clear that either the duo had lost sight of what made The Zombies such a great and unique band or simply felt that their old group had more name value than 'Rod Argent and Colin Blunstone.' As Far As I Can See… sounds nothing like The Zombies, and when Blunstone directly invokes the name 'Odessey & Oracle' during the opener In My Mind A Miracle it nearly feels like blasphemy.
The truth is that As Far As I Can See… is painfully generic and derivative, though I would hasten to add that it doesn't sound like an album that just any contemporary group could have made. The reason for this is that the album practically radiates tastefulness; it features subtle orchestration, subdued arrangements and restrained performances, with nary a drum machine or techno beat in sight. In this regard the album can be seen as a pleasant anachronism, but it's this trait and this trait only that differentiates As Far As I Can See… from its analogues in the current music scene, and had it been released back in the band's heyday it would hardly have felt so unique or distinctive.
Much of the album feels like borderline adult-contemporary; tasteful adult-contemporary, but adult contemporary nonetheless. Nearly all of the album is devoted to balladeering, and these tracks tend to be rather bland, with a pronounced lack of engaging hooks or melodies. Perhaps if one is in the right frame of mind a song like I Don't Believe In Miracles could be genuinely moving, but more often than not its clichéd banalities and conservative, rudimentary approach to music will simply grate on the listener, with countless more similarly quotidian entries accompanying it on the track listing.
The sole true rocker on the album also tends to be the recipient of the most vitriol from fans and critics alike, namely the old-fashioned Time To Move. While the track is undeniably incredibly stupid and a throwback to the most egregious lapses of taste on Begin Here, I still find it perversely enjoyable as a piece of harmless fun, a guilty pleasure that would mar a better or more diverse album but here feels refreshing as a slice of something different.
The album's best track is the aforementioned In My Mind A Miracle, a song that's notable not only for not being a ballad but also because it actually features a catchy melody. It's hardly a Zombies classic, hearkening back more to Begin Here than the masterwork it unwisely namedrops, but it at least opens the album on a positive, if deceptive, note.
Sadly most of the ballads invariably blend together, lacking any real force or presence to draw attention to themselves. Memphis and I Want To Fly are hardly bad songs, but in the end they're quite forgettable, leaving little in the way of a lasting impression in their wake.
Southside Of The Street may be the album's lowest moment as, while the ballads are, at worst, nondescript and interchangeable, they're still competent, which is more than can be said for this bouncy, poppy irritation.
Thus it would have served both Argent and Blunstone best to have omitted the Zombies name from the cover of As Far As I Can See… It's not a terrible album, but it's still consummately unworthy of the band's name. Nearly any album would suffer in comparison to Odessey & Oracle as a swansong, and positioning As Far As I Can See… in this context is like an absurd joke.
Even so As Far As I Can See… nearly always remains tasteful, but this affords a Zombies fan little solace as they listen to a gross parody of what the legendary band used to be.