Canadian indie band The Zolas are one of those bands destined to never achieve the recognition they desire. While the duo, made up of Zach Gray and Tom Dobrzanski, have built up somewhat of a cult following in their homeland, much of it is due to the fan base from their previous project, Lotus Child. The Zolas’ debut album Tic Toc Tic, released in 2010, was relatively well-received, but it was by no means anything special. And the same could be said of their latest LP, entitled Ancient Mars.
The band’s sophomore album is certainly a progression from their debut record, which was far too clean cut and polished. Ancient Mars sees the duo push themselves more than they have done previously and their ambition pays off on the opening track of the album. In Heaven kicks off the album with a repetitive piano melody, before introducing an expansive, psychedelic guitar solo. It’s an impressive start to the record and one that shows the talent that Gray and Dobrzanski possess.
The opener is followed by the album’s lead single, Knot In My Heart, which is another surprisingly infectious track, with a constant chugging guitar riff and buzzing synths building towards a melodic chorus. “It’s hard and weird not to know how your day begins/ though I’m lying next to someone new,” sings Gray, with a sense of longing. The theme of romance is one that crops up fairly regularly throughout Ancient Mars, even if it is awkwardly handled at times. No more so than on the title track, where Gray sings: “I want to believe in time travel/ that one day I’ll come back for you/ find you in the campus library aisles.”
But despite the strong start to Ancient Mars, The Zolas’ second album fails to follow through on the early promise. The piano-laden Observatory is perfectly nice, but it also has nothing remotely interesting about it. Then there’s Strange Girl, which sees the duo attempt to embrace their rock side. The song revolves around a half-hearted guitar riff and stop-start drum beat, but with a forgettable verse and dull chorus, the end result is ultimately disappointing. Elsewhere, Local Swan is a slow and cumbersome piano ballad, while Euphrates And Tigris starts out with an addictive guitar riff before drifting towards another mediocre chorus.
With bands such as Arcade Fire and Broken Social Scene, Canada isn’t exactly lacking in quality indie bands. And as much as The Zolas want to make an similar impact, they are just a bit pedestrian. While Ancient Mars is an improvement on the band’s first album, it still feels as though something is missing. The most frustrating thing about the duo is that they haven’t quite worked out what they want to sound like. Closer Cold Moon starts off beautifully sparse, with just an effecting guitar melody and Gray’s vocal, but it is soon replaced by expansive and boring synths. Whenever they sound like they are getting somewhere, they find some way of regressing.
This constant feeling of one step forward, two steps back is one that runs throughout the album and it’s the main reason why The Zolas are unlikely to be matching their Canadian counterparts anytime soon. While Arcade Fire leave an impression with their music, Ancient Mars will leave you wandering where the standout tunes were. The album may start well, but there is very little on the record that will last long in the memory. The Zolas need to work out exactly what sort of band they want to be and quickly, because at the moment they seem to be in limbo.