Zach Hill, one of the most prolific and varied modern drummers, has been involved with bands ranging from Hella, Nervous Cop and more, to collaborations with Rob Crow and even left-field electronic artist Prefuse 73 on their combined Diamond Watch Wrists project. In 2008 he finally unleashed his own solo debut – and to the surprise of many, it’s much more than the masturbatory percussion fetish expected when drummers go solo. Instead we’ve got a progressive psychedelic mind-warp of a journey from fractured hard trance grooves to massive Black Sabbath-style epics to splintery noise jams, all wrapped up in a free-jazz melange that keeps shifting underfoot, subverting expectations as the ride moves along.
Starting with what sounds like an air raid siren filtered through a vocoder, Astrological Straits is forthcoming about the pressurized sonic onslaught being unleashed. Despite avoiding the obvious perceived pitfalls about a percussionist’s album, the skins are beat mercilessly right out of the gate: pummeling, shredding, and outright assaulting his set is what the man’s become known for, and he doesn’t disappoint. The surprising element is the very arrangements themselves – sometimes moving in expectedly grandiose directions, sometimes twisting into a weird techno-jazz-crunch where the drums submit to the gathering maelstrom and become one with the mix.
Speaking of that mix: for this album Hill enlisted the help of Tyler Pope (!!! and LCD Soundsystem), Marnie Stern, No Age, his own Hella bandmates, Les Claypool and many more interesting players. This may give a hint as to the breadth and scope of the album, but certainly not its direction. Growing from a jumbled, crushing stop-start tentative seed to Boredoms-inspired tribal hypno-grooves, through noise-pop freak-outs, then straight off the planet into a prog-funk-metal-fusion jam that ends the album over 9 breathless minutes. It’s this restless enthusiasm for change and the ebb and flow of energy which clearly displays Mr. Hill’s jazz underpinnings. He may be oft compared with high energy percussionists like Brian Chippendale of Lightning Bolt but his head (and prodigious ability) lies in another realm entirely. This is so much more than impressive musicianship; it’s a new world being ripped open by an intellectually primal beat explorer. I’ll leave you with a quote from the man himself:
Q: What’s in the future for you? Where are you headed?
A: I want to change the world of my instrument in a large way. I want to get to the highest place with my instrument that I can possibly get and change the instrument for the better. I want to innovate. That ‘s what I set out to do and that’s what I’m going to do, whether anybody’s paying attention or not.”
– Modern Drummer, August 2006