I’ve always been a huge fan of the ‘Canterbury’ sound; maybe that was a sub-conscious reason why I moved there. With that “loosely-defined, improvisational style that blends elements of jazz, rock and psychedelia”, the musical genre includes the usual ’60s and ’70s criminals (said strictly as a form of endearment) like Soft Machine, National Health, Hatfield and The North, Egg and Caravan (amongst others). And then, along comes Zopp. It’s the closest modern day musical project you will find to that immediately identifiable genre. And what’s astonishing is that Zopp is primarily one man, Ryan W. Stevenson, very ably supported by Andrea Moneta (of Leviathan fame) on drums and percussion. It’s probably fair to say that Stevenson is probably circa half the age of his founding Canterbury Scene colleagues, and it is certainly safe to say that he is a modern day musical prodigy, completely self-taught on guitars and keyboards, with the benefit of some formal training in music technology.
Stevenson has form. He wrote all the music for the documentary The Perfect Gangster, a story about the American mobster and hitman John Elite, receiving a nomination for Best Music in 2019. And in 2020, he released his debut self-titled Zopp album, to huge acclaim. Read Graham Thomas’ review, which describes it par excellence. This album, recorded in a home studio in Nottingham, is definitely a progression from that excellent debut. It is more of a sequence of work rather than a collection of songs, and it seems that careful thought has gone into the curation of its running order. Yes, there are distinct traits of his early ’70s Canterbury forebears, with Hammond organ and Mellotron producing the avant-garde, psychedelic, folk, ambient, and Prog Jazz Fusion sound, but there is more… far more; layers of sounds, almost unique in its progressive soundscape, with Prog Rock, even some Big Big Train brassy sounds. And something that differs from the debut album… vocals; but more about that later.
Two long-form tracks with five highly complementary shorter tunes create a cohesive whole. Amor Fati is a reassuring 2-minute overture that is ’70s Robert Wyatt all over, choral chants and time signature shifts that lead seamlessly into the first 11-minute long-form: You, rhythmic in the extreme before it explodes into psychedelic multi-musician stuff. There is a cinematic feel, and when the vocals break, I am reminded of Norwegian influence, particularly the band 35 Tapes or Caligonaut; the bands sit very easily together, and a gig with either of those two would be an awesome double- or triple-header. Come on guys, make it so! The song strikes me as being about growing up before embarking on a voyage to discover who one really is:
Exiting the machine.
There’s a victory in knowing who I really am.
Leave the programme.
Think about it, when were we last free?
Talk about, no one really sees.
Walk around it, we will let them be.
Sacrifice it, do what’s best for me.”
The track develops in a very accessible way, keyboard and synth heavy, underpinned with tight percussion before a supreme symphonic prog rock section; spine-tingling. It could easily be in my top 10 tracks for 2023.
Bushnell Keeler allows one to draw breath. Modern jazz, with a complex rhythm section backing from Andrea Moneta. It’s right on the edge of what many describe as melodic prog; it’s actually much more fusion, with a recurring melody. It morphs into Uppmärksamhet; Stevenson readily admits that this feels “deeply Scandinavian”, with a symphonic prog element, acoustic and electric guitars, Mellotron, flutes and strings. The tempo and energy reduces significantly and beautifully, and one can imagine floating down an early-morning fog-bound stream. There’s even a feel of Santana or early ’70s Pink Floyd in the guitar.
Reality Tunnels returns to the signature Zopp sound with boundless energy and a maelstrom of instrumental loveliness; so many layers of instruments and yet they all tie together. I’m even hearing some harpsichord in there somewhere, and the song gets deeper and richer with every note to a bass pedal conclusion.
Wetiko Approaching is a short yet engaging vocal-led tune that has a modern day Canterbury underscore. The bell tolls as the Tardis lands (fans of old-school Doctor Who will understand that analogy when they hear it) as this linking piece leads directly into the final 14-minute epic, Toxicity. Surprise, surprise, it’s again akin to Soft Machine from the mid-to-late ’70s, but with a greater sense of melody. It bounces along at an exceptional rhythmic pace with unusual sounds from maybe a melodica and some stupendous keyboard action; it’s all quite exhausting really, but in the most positive of ways. This really is the most melodic of Canterbury tunes and the joy contained within is palpable. One never wants it to end. There’s even some Gabriel-esque flute reminiscent of those early Genesis years, and the BBT posse will also find it hugely exciting. Stevenson states, “Writing a 14-minute progressive piece like Toxicity where the song continuously flows was a challenge, but a successful experiment nevertheless. It’s important for me to throw all sorts of elements into the mix, from varied sources of music that are inspiring to me. I’ve really been into bands like King Gizzard and Tame Impala the last few years; not only their psychedelic sound, but also their DIY, independent approach to making music.” Says it all, really, and I love it.
This is an album which has every prospect of reviving the Canterbury sound and drawing fans into that very special and now richly historical genre. Canterbury lives… with a gorgeous modern 2023 twist. I usually try my best to avoid the oft over-used term of ‘genius’, but this truly is a master at work and he has a stratospheric future ahead of him with his Zopp project. We already know that the next two, yes, two albums are mature in his mind. Crikey, bring it on!
There are few albums that generate true joy as one listens from start to finish, and get me standing out of my chair; this is one. I hope that Stevenson can find a way to get this in front of a live audience. He plays so many of the instruments that I imagine this will be a tall order, but if he can pull it off, this music will get an extraordinarily positive reaction from his audience. if you have only a fleeting interest in the Canterbury Scene, this is truly a WOW moment. Grandiose throughout, play it all LOUD; Zopp is the real deal.
01. Amor Fati (2:10)
02. You (10:57)
03. Bushnell Keeler (5:07)
04. Uppmärksamhet (3:14)
05. Reality Tunnels (4:11)
06. Wetiko Approaching (2:00)
07. Toxicity (14:22)
Total Time – 40:01
Ryan W Stevenson – Hammond Organ, Mellotron, Hohner Pianet, Piano, Electric Pianos, Acoustic & Electric Guitars, Bass Guitar, Vocals, Korg MS20, Synthesizers, Percussion, Flute, Field Recordings, Sound Design
Andrea Moneta – Drums, Percussion
Sally Minnear – Voice (track 1)
Caroline Joy Clarke – Voice (tracks 1,2 & 7)
Jørgen Munkeby – Tenor Sax, Flute (track 3)
Mike Benson – Tenor Sax (track 2)
Rob Milne – Tenor Sax, Flute (track 7)
Tomás Figueiredo – French Horn (track 1)
Joe Burns – Gong, Additional Cymbals (track 7)
Record Label: Independent
Country of Origin: U.K.
Date of Release: 3rd February 2023