Review & Full Album Stream: Zaum, Divination

zaum divination

[Click play above to stream Divination by Zaum in its entirety. Album is out May 10 on Listenable Records.]

Across a three-track sprawl, Canadian duo Zaum successfully manage to stay on theme while significantly expanding their sound. At its core, Divination — which is the Moncton outfit’s third full-length and first for Listenable Records — holds to much the same methodology as 2016’s Eidolon (review here) or even 2014’s debut, Oracles (review here), but the context has shifted as bassist/vocalist/etc.-ist Kyle Alexander McDonald and drummer/percussionist Christopher Lewis have begun to embrace different contours and textures in their work. As with the last two albums, there are some clues to be found in the artwork, in this case exploring the theology and mysticism of Southeast Asia as well as some of the folk influence, but Zaum‘s central purpose has not wavered and throughout the 18:27 opener and longest track (immediate points) “Relic,” they show growth not by moving away from their initial purposes, but by advancing deeper and more complex arrangements.

Like the similarly-minded Om before them, Zaum have begun to push outside the confines of a bass/drum duo, incorporating various bells and other atmospheric elements in order to convey the ambience that is so crucial to what they do now more than ever. It’s worth noting that McDonald and Lewis have furthered the visual side of their live presentation as well, bringing aboard Nawal Doucette as a presence onstage. Whether or not she contributes to the album, I don’t know — there are vocals near the beginning of “Relic” that could be hers, but I haven’t seen proper credits — but either way, “Relic,” as well as “Pantheon” (8:48) and “Procession” (13:58), which follow, bear the mark of this increased focus on atmosphere. Of course, this was not an area in which Zaum were exactly lacking prior to Divination, but it’s a question of balance in their sound, and they have grown more patient in their execution as well as more willing to explore the spaces they naturally create in their material. This has only made them a stronger band and more suited to their aesthetic purpose.

The sense of ceremony is immediate as “Relic” begins to unfold, and it remains prevalent no matter how tonally weighted Zaum get. Echoing voice, flute sounds, finger cymbals and darkly psychedelic textures put the listener precisely in the place the band wants them to be, and though the first few minutes of “Relic” are quiet, the patience they instill in the audience is another triumphant aspect of Divination on the whole. Soon enough, the drones and bass and echoing march will commence, and “Pantheon” as the centerpiece/side B leadoff hits with even more impact ahead of “Procession,” which casts a more strictly doomed pall on the way to its apex topped by righteously harmonized vocals. There are ebbs and flows along the way — plenty of flow throughout, actually — in volume and intensity, but at its most subdued or its loudest push, Divination remains informed by that original showcase of patience, and the temporal slowdown that ensues is all the more effective for it.

zaum (Photo by Pierre Morin)

But Zaum‘s dynamic isn’t just about volume tradeoffs or writing long songs. It’s the feeling of ritualization that helps to distinguish them, and “Relic” shows this as well from front to back, dipping into some spaces that feel born of more extreme metal — thinking just past the halfway point before the vocals drop out. As Zaum have moved toward discovering their own sound, they’ve worked to conjure a singly dark vibe that Divination certainly brings to its most resonant realization yet. It’s not that Zaum are suddenly playing death or black metal — far from it — but as they began by transposing the tenets of doom onto their style, their breadth in that regard would seem to have expanded as well along with the rest of their modus. As “Pantheon” sets its ambient foundation in the first minute and then begins constructing a temple build of foreshadow harmonies and drone metal leading to bleak incantations, it’s hard to tell just with what gods Zaum are communing — all of them? — but clear just the same that the intent is not of this world.

It is a grim psych of the spirit, and the “Procession” to which it leads feels very much like the march to death. The closer isn’t the longest work Zaum have ever done — both tracks on Eidolon topped 20 minutes, there’s “Relic” here and the 19-minute “The Serpentshrine” from their 2015 split with Shooting Guns (review here) — but it might be this album’s highest achievement. To hear Zaum use vocal layering as they do effects and percussion along with the bass and drums as another instrument at their disposal puts them in a different category of songwriters entirely, and it only speaks well for their search as it continues to move forward from here. “Procession” winds down before building back up to its 10th minute, eventually making its way into the aforementioned harmonies, chant-like as they are.

Amid all the nuance of arrangement, Zaum make an easy argument for themselves as a progressive band. The simple fact that they’d work so directly toward an atmospheric ideal does that alone, never mind how they actually get there. But with the ending of “Procession,” and really with Divination the whole way through, Zaum separate from the paths of their influences and find their own way. They are the monk leaving the monastery to create a new path, and the sound they find on that journey is as enriching as any dogma might provide. Again, for those who’ve experienced Zaum in the past, it’s not so much that Divination is a radical reinvention of what they do. It’s not supposed to be. Instead, what it does is to show how malleable their approach is to further growth and how much it’s able to branch out in terms of expression without sacrificing its basic level of impact to that cause. Those who’ve heard them before will still recognize them, but the shape of what’s being recognized has changed and signals in this material that change will be ongoing. So be it.

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2 Responses to “Review & Full Album Stream: Zaum, Divination

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