There’s something about debut albums isn’t there? Bands or artists that are new to you making their first long-form artistic statement. There are no pre-conceptions, not too much expectation, more hope really, and when they turn out to be impressive, it’s such a lovely surprise. Well, my friends, in the case of Zopp, I’m about to raise your expectations somewhat, because this is a blinder of a debut album. For anyone who has ever enjoyed the sound and atmosphere of classic Seventies Canterbury scene albums, you cannot fail to love this record. It’s partly the instrumentation employed, the sonics and tone of the keyboards and the style in which they are played, and it’s partly the compositional structure of the music. Together they give you such an authentic Canterbury ’feel’, such an atmosphere that it is like being reacquainted with a long lost friend. Yet familiar as this album feels, as comforting and reassuring as it sounds, paradoxically this is brand spanking new, modern and original.
Stunningly, most of the music on this album is the work of one man – Ryan Stevenson. Ryan has won awards for some of his film soundtrack work, but this is his first foray into the world of progressive rock. Having been introduced to the music of the Canterbury scene by finding Egg on his father’s computer (!), the influence of such bands as National Health and Hatfield and the North permeates this release, but fused with other progressive influences, with touches of Camel, Oldfield and ambient, and even hints of Lumpy Gravy-style Zappa. All of this is wrapped up in dense layers of fuzzed organ and Mellotron in a largely instrumental electric rock stew. Instrumental albums can often be thought of as less accessible, but Ryan’s fine sense of melody challenges this notion, and you will find this very approachable. Repeated listens reveal a depth of complexity which holds the attention; there is so much going on at any one time.
The brief Swedish Love ushers us in, with burbling synth, then a joyful melody with keyboards and voice twisting this way and that before giving way to a single organ tone, an ominous presence which builds in volume, laughter from somewhere, and then with a drum roll, the Pandora’s box of Before the Light is opened, and suddenly we are off at a gallop as the scene unfolds before us. It’s like walking into Clive Barker’s Weaveworld, with a musical tapestry springing to life around us, and we are enveloped in a Canterbury soundscape of dazzling beauty, with fuzzy organs, Mellotrons washing around, written lead guitar lines evoking Oldfield or even The Enid, and an energy and exuberance which just makes you smile. In many ways, that is the key to this music, it is joyful, it has depth, and above all, it’s fun. It demands your attention, but however hard you look at it, it refuses to stand still. It changes mood like a teenager, and when you think you’ve got it sussed, it wriggles off in another direction, and you’re playing catch up again.
With a multi-instrumentalist like this, he might have been tempted to do everything himself, but he’s wisely enlisted some key helpers. Andrea Moneta from Italy’s Leviathan plays drums, and it makes a difference having real drums on an album like this, as good as virtual drums can be these days. His playing gives such energy and drive which Ryan’s compositions demand, but with sympathetic restraint. The other main contributor is Andy Tillison, and it’s no surprise that he would have wanted to be involved with an album like this. Anyone familiar with The Tangent will be well aware of his Canterbury dalliances, and he plays a vital role here, not so much in the extra keyboard parts he’s added as in his co-producing and mastering role. One man band affairs almost always benefit from a fresh pair of ears, and Tillison’s experience must surely have helped produce this aural delight. Add a pinch of Theo Travis on flute, some vocalisations from Caroline Joy Clarke, and some lovely sax from Mike Benson, and we have a near-perfect debut; the sort of album that has you hitting the play button as soon as it’s finished.
It’s not all full-tilt electric madness, there are quieter reflective moments, which soothe the mind in preparation for the next stage of the journey. Sanger for example has a gentle intro, and mild manner, but is deceptively complex. Sellanrå follows, and is almost ambient, delicate raindrops of piano and birdsong massaging the mind, recalling Jade Warrior at their most wistful. Picking highlights is rather pointless though, every track has something different and engaging to offer, there is no low point, not one. Closing piece The Noble Shirker, the longest track at nine minutes, is a fitting end, organ and Mellotron creating a glorious palette over which Mike Benson adds some wonderful tenor sax and Ryan some almost Fripp-like guitar lines. It builds to a climax then fades with burbling synth dancing between the speakers until we are left with a single organ tone and the sound of a river splashing away.
When this viral nightmare subsides, as it surely will, it will have been music like this, brimming with the human spirit and oozing optimism, that will have helped us through it. We will emerge into the sunlight, eyes blinking in the brightness and realise that the world is still as vibrant and exciting as Zopp suggests. And whilst Bad Elephant aren’t currently shipping physical albums, I’d urge you to order the thing anyway and while you wait for it to arrive, bask in the download and thank the gods for the gift of music like this.
01. Swedish Love (1:32)
02. Before The Light (6:05)
03. Eternal Return (5:06)
04. Sanger (3:20)
05. Sellanrå (3:29)
06. V (6:37)
07. Being And Time (4:33)
08. Zero (4:52)
09. The Noble Shirker (9:19)
Total Time – 44:53
Ryan Stevenson – Keyboards, Mellotron M4000D, Hammond Organ, Arturia Analogue Synthesizer, Korg CX-3 Organ, Piano, Hohner Pianet T, Nord Electro 5d, Bass & Electric Guitars, Voice, Field Recordings, Percussion
Andrea Moneta – Drums, Percussion
Andy Tillison – Additional Piano (track 6), Additional Hammond (track 3), Leslie Processing (tracks 2,5 & 6), Synth (track 4), Effects (tracks 3 & 9)
Theo Travis – Flute (track 6)
Caroline Joy Clarke – Voice (tracks 1,7 & 8)
Mike Benson – Tenor Sax (track 9)
Record Label: Bad Elephant Music
Date of Release: 10th April 2020