Review & Full Album Premiere: Hey Zeus, X

Posted in audiObelisk, Reviews on January 30th, 2019 by JJ Koczan

Hey Zeus X

[Click play above to stream Hey Zeus’ debut album, X, in its entirety. It’s out this week on Argonauta Records.]

Hey Zeus have been kicking around Boston’s heavy rock underground for last six years to some degree or other, following in a tradition of straightforward, catchy, well-composed heavy rock that’s no less a cultural institution for the city than local-sports worship, yelling shit at pedestrians from moving vehicles and drinking. Signed early last year to Argonauta Records, their debut full-length, X, follows a 2014 split with White Dynomite (review here), and other tracks posted as singles such as “Caveman” (premiered here) and “Richard the Elder” (posted here) in 2016. A penchant for covering Deep Purple — legit — that manifests on X as a duly head-spinning take on “Bloodsucker” also goes back to the band’s earlier days playing live, so it seems safe enough to argue that X is the realization of multiple years of putting the material together and refining it, and as the resulting nine-song/29-minute offering arrives nearly six years to the day from the band’s first show, one can hear those efforts in the tightness of composition throughout.

Songs like “Richard the Elder,” opener “These Eyes,” “Save Your” (as opposed to “saviour”) and careening speedsters like “I Don’t Want It,” “X Marks the Rocks” and closer “Queens” realize a hooky, engaging energy that vocalist Bice Nathan gleefully puts over the top, though in the company of guitarist Pete Knipfing, bassist Ken Cmar and drummer Todd Bowman, he’s hardly the only one catching that charge. And as much as a comparison to erstwhile Beantown kingpins Roadsaw feels inevitable, perhaps even more relevant is the connection Knipfing and Bowman share from their prior outfit Lamont, whose dedicated sans-frills urgency seems as well to inform some of the writing in X. It should be to the surprise of no one that Hey Zeus can get the job done — the job, by the way, is kicking ass — given the time they’ve spent honing their approach, but that hardly makes the record a less impressive debut. Quite the opposite.

And though one might look at X and find it short at 29 minutes, it’s not so much that there’s anything lacking in terms of what the band wants to convey, but just that they’ve packed it all into that time. That’s not just a question of speed. Even “Gilded,” or “Caveman,” which is the longest inclusion at 3:53, varies its tempo in order to find the right niche of groove that suits the song. They’re not forcing that feeling of electricity to what they do — it’s just there. No coincidence that the Deep Purple song they take on was from In Rock, which was arguably that band’s most lethal of outings, but there’s more to X than just rushing through a collection of songs. Nathan brings a subtle sense of arrangement to the vocals and finds melodies between the distorted lines of Knipfing‘s riffs. Cmar‘s rumbling bass proves essential early on to the drive of “I Don’t Want It,” and is unrelenting, and though Nathan adds percussion later in a break within “Save Your,” Bowman‘s drumming is intermittently furious enough to cover that ground anyway, shifting fluidly from the swinging finish of “Richard the Elder” to the classic riff rock strut of “Caveman” and the starts and stops that permeate “Queens.”

hey zeus

So what do we have? Rock album. Heavy. Rock and roll. Sharp songs. Crisp performances. Clear, full production value. Boot-meet-butt energy. Cool. What separates Hey Zeus from multitudes working from essentially the same elements, however, is the level of their craft and the way they use it throughout X. While I don’t think it’s anyone involved’s first record, it’s still the first record from the band, and their dynamic is not to be understated as a pivotal factor in their approach. The interplay between Knipfing and Cmar on guitar and bass during the former’s solos alone stands as testament to the work they’ve done in terms of developing a conversation between players, and with Bowman as the grounding force, they’re able to smoothly shift tempos and moods at a measure’s notice, making their songs less predictable even as they’re en route to an immediately familiar chorus. Throw in a healthy dose of attitude from Nathan and the chops to back it up, and not only carries forward the legacy of Boston’s heavy rock history, but seeks to find its own place and build upon it.

Or maybe they’re just looking to down some beers and have a good time, blow off steam from hating their jobs and whatever else. That’s no less valid a take. What’s important are the results they get across this collection of songs, and one of the great strengths of X is the momentum Hey Zeus amass as they wind their way through the progression of tracks. Even the Deep Purple cover, which though lacking organ is otherwise pretty loyal to the spirit of the original, feeds into the thrust of the material surrounding, picking up from the breather ending of “Caveman” and leading the way into “Queens” at the finish. It’s part of an overarching push that begins with “These Eyes” and continues through everything that follows; the classic “set the tone” spirit of the opener indicative of the proceedings on the whole, and though it’s easy enough to tag the whole thing as straight-ahead, all-go, etc., Knipfing does find room to slide some Southern edge into his guitar on “Save Your,” and the gang shouts behind Nathan on “X Marks the Rocks” is no less an important sonic detail.

What those convey, once again, is the work that’s gone into this material. While not staid at all — shit, it barely stands still long enough to be heard — X has a foundation it’s building from. As much as they might try to convince you otherwise, Hey Zeus didn’t just throw these songs together and — whoops! — come out with an air-tight collection of tracks that just happen to throw a punch in the gut as they run past. But at the same time, they do successfully balance that level of songmaking with the vitality that’s so central to making it all function. That might be the record’s great accomplishment — it feels true to a live experience without losing hold of itself as a studio outing. And it may have taken Hey Zeus more than half a decade to get to this point, but it’s hard to take X as a whole and not consider it worth the effort on their part.

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