I’m beginning to think that some of the best rock music these days is coming out of New Zealand, as here I am writing about yet another great band from that island nation at the other side of the world (I’m in Southern California). My latest subject is The Zoup, an alternative rock band from Auckland, and their sparkling debut album Symbiotic. As explained in the album notes, Symbiotic is “a sonic journey representing five years of musical exploration and experimentation which truly represents the collective essence of the band.”
The Zoup is comprised of Jaydn de Graaf (lead vocals, guitar), Dominic Mauger (lead guitar, keyboards), Tom Chou (bass) and Dave Johnston (drums, backing vocals). The band’s sound is characterized by complex, multi-textured guitars over strong, rhythmic basslines and aggressive percussion, accompanied by deGraaf’s amazing vocals that swoop and soar with abandon. The guys have been making music together for over eight years, and recorded their first self-titled EP in 2009. They continued writing songs and experimenting with their sound, and recorded several tracks in two sessions named for the locations where they took place – the Piha in 2011 and Kaipara in 2012. Three of those tracks have been remastered and are now included on Symbiotic.
The 10-track album was engineered and produced by band member/drummer Dave Johnston (who also plays drums for the band Villainy), and what a winner it is! It opens strong with the hyperkinetic title track “Symbiotic.” Rapid-fire drums set the pace, with assertive guitars overlying buzzing basslines. The song hums along, seeming to end at 3:05, then with a touch of feedback, it revs back up to a dramatic finish. I may be totally off-base, but the lyrics seem to address the band’s connection with their past, and their desire to move on into new territory, which this album represents. “Strange how the smallest sounds always seem to trigger the memories I thought that I had lost in time.”
Next up is “Shao Ten” – a standout track with such awesome guitar work, it had the hair on the back of my neck standing straight up. Distorted guitars play off frantic, jangly guitar riffs and wobbly bass, perfectly complementing de Graaf’s powerful soaring vocals. The captivating “Scheming” is one of my favorites, with blistering guitars and aggressive drums, accentuated by an abundance of crashing cymbals. The backing vocals rise and fall in a beautiful chorus, accompanied by distorted guitar.
The melodic “The Cuts and the Crime” is another strong track, and has been released as their latest single. The song speaks to the inner conflict between giving in to one’s darker desires – to “dance with the fire” – and the need to walk a straight line and behave like a good person: “In my mind/The better side of never is what keeps me in line. In my mind/I’m never gonna get it from the cuts and the crime.” Musically, the song opens with a powerful drumbeat that propels the song forward. Complex, multi-layered stop and start guitar riffs float nicely over a powerful bassline and, as always, deGraaf’s vocals are mesmerizing.
Keeping the energy flowing, “Monuments” is a hard-driving gem with swirling guitars, heavy bass and hammering drums. deGraaf’s urgent vocals weave effortlessly through the music. The pace slows a bit with the sultry but still intense “Talking to Myself.” The killer guitars are shredded, plucked and distorted all over the place, accompanied by crashing cymbals and goosebump-inducing harmonic vocals. This song has some of the best lyrics: “Even dishonest men tell honest lies. To reset those feelings which hold special meanings will take some time. Trusting this world it takes such arrogance. Talking to myself is not OK.”
“Ethos” was first recorded at the Piha Sessions in 2011, and is such a good song the band decided to rework and include it on Symbiotic. On this and the following track “Colours,” we’re treated to more mind-bending guitar riffs and Johnston’s wicked drums, along with deGraaf’s beguiling vocals. I’m now certain that I’m addicted to this band’s music.
Another older song from the Kaipara Sessions included on this album is the gorgeous ballad “We Should Have Listened.” Acoustic guitars have a starring role, giving this amazing track more of a folk-rock vibe than The Zoup’s other songs. The lyrics are compelling: “Time the oppressor waits for no man at all. Save those lucky few who hold it dearest to them. We should have listened, but now it’s gone. We didn’t listen to what they had to say. We had our chance to change. We had our chance, we threw it all away.” Although the track has been remastered for the album, this video from the session in 2012 features the band recording the song, along with footage of them that provides a glimpse of their friendly, unassuming personalities.
The final track “Young and Unaware” is the third on Symbiotic to come from the previous sessions. It’s a great song, with thunderous shredded guitars, heavy bass and pounding drums giving it the most hard-rock sound of all the tracks on the album.
The Zoup (their name doesn’t really mean anything, according to Johnston, who said they actually saw the word on an old T-shirt belonging to their guitarist Dominic, and thought a name beginning with the last letter of the alphabet was strong) is definitely a band to follow and Symbiotic is an album worth owning. Show them support by following on Facebook and Twitter, and subscribe to their YouTube channel. Stream their music on Soundcloud or Spotify, and purchase on Bandcamp or itunes.