The title track on Zonaea's new album As the Stars Collapse begins with a gentle guitar arpeggio, lulling you into a false belief that this is going to be a slow-building post-rock opus of some sort.
But then they kick that notion to pieces, cutting straight to a tortured yowl from a distorted guitar. Sorry, folks, this is not an Explosions in the Sky concert. There's going to be some screaming, and it's going to get a little dissonant.
"It's nice to have some sort of sonic interruption in there," says lead singer and guitarist Doug Robertson. "We definitely do try to blend beauty and atonal sounds together. All my favorite bands, bands like Sonic Youth, Polvo, stuff like that, it's easy to listen to but challenging at the same time."
The guys in Zonaea — Robertson, guitarist Ron Redick, drummer Patrick Queen, and bass guitarist Robert Kinne — grew up together and played in bands across a variety of Charleston music scenes. They've been together in Zonaea for about seven years now, but they didn't buckle down on the work until about a year-and-a-half ago, when Robertson finished grad school. Such is the rock 'n' roll lifestyle for grown-ups.
"It's not necessarily like anything's gonna happen, because we're all professional adults, but we're just taking things a little more seriously," Robertson says. "I think over the past couple of years, we really have developed and found our sound."
The band has finally crystallized that sound on As the Stars Collapse, its first studio album, which was recorded with producer Zac Thomas at the Jam Room in Columbia. A gorgeous translucent blue vinyl pressing will be available Friday at Tin Roof and via zooandamovierecords.com. The cover art features a heavily Photoshopped and re-colored image of either a star collapsing or a star exploding (Robertson can't remember which), courtesy of local artist and musician Walter Richter.
It's not a concept album; none of the songs are literally about astronomy. "I think a lot of the songs, I see them as about beauty and intensity and pressure intermingling and living together," Robertson says. "I think that's part of where As the Stars Collapse comes from, really just an internal pressure that changes things, sometimes for the better, sometimes for the worse, and is just all around us."
The songs do sound pressurized. From the slurred rap-singing of "Drizzlebot" to the anarchic guitar stutter of bonus track "Slaughterize," everything is tense and tightly wound. The band approaches math-rock precision on the fifth track "Pixel Revolt," with Queen blasting away at twitchy drum runs to match the frenetic guitars, while the lyrics — which Robertson describes largely as a "stream-of-consciousness rant" — work like impressionist brushstrokes. With no lyrics sheet, the words are hard to make out except for brief moments of clarity, like on "Drizzlebot," when he sings, "Flashback, it's 19-fuckin'-82," loud and clear.
"To me, the best songs, even if they're slow, dark, sad, if they can bring out some tinge of actual feeling, I think there's a lot of joy there," Robertson says. "Any sort of art that can make me feel like I felt when I was 16, driving around with the windows down smoking a cigarette — whether I was heartbroken or happy as can be — it's just sort of evoking that time."