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Zelienople, "Hold You Up"

cover imageThis long-running Chicago slowcore trio has been uncharacteristically silent for the last five years, though vocalist Matt Christensen has been as tirelessly prolific as ever as a solo artist. Given that lengthy hiatus, it is not entirely surprising that the Zelienople that has resurfaced with Hold You Up is a somewhat different beast than the Zelienople of old. Admittedly, the band's usual fragility, languorous pacing, and pervading sense of melancholia have definitely not gone anywhere, but this latest release is considerably more driving and pop-minded than the fare I have grown to expect from the band. That said, I suppose I should put "driving" and "pop" in quotes, as the closest Hold You Up comes to the mainstream is an aesthetic indebtedness to Mark Hollis's solo work. Zelienople are still considerably more monochromatic and minimal than Hollis ever was though, so none of the band's distinctive character has been sacrificed—they have merely gotten a bit better at enhancing their vision with a greater emphasis on hooks and grooves. Needless to say, that evolution suits them well.


If I had to guess, I would say that I have been a casual fan of Zelienople for roughly a decade now, yet this project has only grown more inscrutable to me with each new release.For one, Christensen and drummer Mike Weis seem like exceptionally unlikely candidates for anything remotely resembling a conventional rock band (even though some of Christensen's solo work can be quite structured and melodic).For his part, Weis is now "a focused student of Korean Shaman and Buddhist music, often performing in Zen-based percussive rituals."That said, Zelienople is still quite far from sounding like a conventional rock band, though their more experimental tendencies manifest themselves in some very unusual and almost self-sabotaging ways on Hold You Up.The most dramatic divergence from the expected path lies in the album's production, as it sounds almost like the band is playing at the bottom of a nearby well.As a result, the music sounds weirdly bloodless, spectral, and impressionistic.In some ways, that gives the album kind of a cool hypnagogic feel, yet it also has the unfortunate effect of undercutting some of the band's strengths.While Christensen is both a stellar guitarist and an emotive vocalist, I get the distinct impression that he would vastly prefer to become a ghost or vanish into a fog than front a rock band.Curiously, however, Weis’s ride cymbal seems to exist outside of that elegantly blurred veil, cutting crisply through the reverb-heavy, submerged-sounding music to take an unusually prominent role.

While the non-Zelienople activities of bassist Brian Harding remain a mystery, he plays no less a role than Weis and Christensen, as his melodic, Peter Hook-esque riffing provides most of the album's structure (and gives Christensen license to improvise with as much looseness and spontaneity as he wants).In fact, Zelienople are amusingly akin to a hushed, post-rock Rush: all three members are formidable musicians with their own distinctive styles, each has plenty of space to work, and the end result is greater than the sum of its parts.I found much to love about the contributions of all three members and it is hard to imagine the band working nearly as well with a different line-up.In general, however, the best songs on Hold You Up are the ones where the rhythm section takes the most muscular role, such as the stomping, slow-burning, and propulsively rolling title piece.While it certainly takes its time to get to the vocals, "Hold You Up" is easily the best piece on the album, as every single element comes together seamlessly: the bass-driven groove is quite strong, Weis's cymbal patterns are very cool, the melodic synth hook provides a faint splash of color, and Christensen's ringing chords and arpeggios linger like a hallucinatory vapor trail.Elsewhere, the closing "America" makes excellent use of an oddly timed tom-tom rhythm, while the opening "Safer" is propelled by one of Harding's meatiest and most melodic bass riffs.The somewhat sleepy and meandering "Just An Unkind Time" is a dark horse candidate for an album highlight as well, as its spare arpeggios gradually intertwine with a burbling, groaning, and chirping host of other instruments for a quietly gorgeous and hallucinatory second half.      

As much as admire and appreciate how nuanced and beautifully crafted these songs are, however, I have a difficult time getting past the semi-incorporeal and almost weightless production of the album.I recognize that it was entirely a deliberate decision on the band's part, but it was still a perplexing one: it feels like the actual songs are reduced to a mere trebly haze over the considerably more "real" and physical contributions of the rhythm section.Charitably speaking, that gives Hold You Up a flickering, dreamlike feel that is quite unique to Zelienople.Normally, I am exactly the target demographic for that approach, yet I find myself exasperated at both the distance it creates and the blurring effect it has upon Christensen's guitar work.That said, it is definitely a good thing that I find his playing absorbing and unusual enough to actually wish that there was enough clarity for me to fully hear and appreciate its intricacies.Consequently, I have conflicting feelings about the album, but they are admittedly highly subjective ones.To my ears, Zelienople have crafted a remarkably good album that simply errs too far on the side of quiet subtlety and understatement to fully connect with me.For those more attuned and amenable to the band's hushed and shadowy niche, however, I suspect Hold You Up is easily one of the most focused and masterfully crafted iterations of that aesthetic to date.If someone told me that they thought this album was an absolute masterpiece, I would certainly not think they were crazy, as Hold You Up is a near-perfect example of a very specific sound.I could definitely see this album enjoying impressive longevity with a small but extremely devoted group of fans.

Samples can be found here.