The End of the Lion
Major League Baseball has lately managed to reclaim the hearts and minds of millions of Americans, and fans can tell you the sport has rediscovered its essence. The Return of the Red Sox synthesized the sport's core components—compelling narrative and breathtaking gamesmanship—and this season, stories ranging from the triumphs of Minnesota's beloved boys to Detroit's remarkable reemergence jerked as many tears as The Natural. This return to form isn't unprecedented, as great American institutions continually witness their vitality and influence ebb and flow. However, despite stretches of creative vacuity and the fickle allegiances of the zeitgeist, there's never any doubt that these old stalwarts will come back.
But when it comes to that American institution called rock 'n' roll, one fears a looming threat. It's hard to shake the suspicion that rock is past its prime. Teenagers may forever pick up Stratocasters and practice stage dives from the living room couch. With regard to relevance and innovation, however, it seems all too possible that one of these days, Lazarus might just stay under the stone.
But I'm not ready to pack away my fishnets and fingerless gloves just yet, so I sought out some dedicated Twin Cities rock-o-philes to elicit insight. ZibraZibra, the Twin Cities' newest teen sensation, seemed like a great place to start. I looked to these recently graduated Arts High alums to provide clues in the search for the soul of rock 'n' roll. Even if I don't find it, there are worse ways to spend a day than with cute-as-buttons (but naughty buttons) 18- and 19-year-old-boys.
First, a little background: This quartet, which formed in February, consists of Mr. Z (Neil Zumwalde), the Atomic Wolf (Aaron Baum), Vanilla (Henry Mikkonen), and Technosaurus Flex (Mitch McCarthy). They've won an impressive array of battles of the bands, including a Drive-105 competition that awarded them a slot opening for Soul Asylum at the Taste of Minnesota ("like five hours before they went on" according to Mikkonen), Radio-K's taste-making melee, and an early entry at Elk River High School that saw frontman Zumwalde strip down to flesh-colored hot pants. They signed with local label Royalty, Etc. on July 4 and released an album by Bastille Day. This fall, they took home a Minnesota Music Academy Award. Winter brings a gig for the RollerGirls, a West Coast tour, and "top secret exciting things [that are] in the works."
Winning an MMA may be no more prestigious than getting heralded for perfect attendance at school assembly, and most bands tout "top secret" projects ad nauseam, but still, ZibraZibra have been strong out of the gate. While their album, The End of the Lion, is fractured and all over the map (Zumwalde was quick to point out that while the material wasn't written to inhabit an album, they still felt it was strong enough to commit to disc), it's packed with catchy hooks, digital fireworks, and infectious pop melodies. Songs like "Sonic Fusion," "A Robot Never Forgets," and "Extraterrestrisex the Sextraterrestrial" invoke the age-old desire to shake that ass.
More than their album, however, the band is notable for their live show. They breathe lucid life into, as they put it, "a lot of ones and zeros." Bands that draw heavily from digital elements and drum machines threaten to devolve into the "it's just a guy with his laptop" syndrome when playing live. Not so with ZibraZibra. A recent Sunday night gig at Big V's recalled so many lonely Dome days of yore—a group of not boys/not yet men bravely stepped in front of a diminutive turnout and played balls-to-the-wall, complete with showy histrionics, oh so! pelvic thrusts, and occasional moments of inspiration. It was an impressive, if underattended, performance.
Regardless of turnout, however, ZibraZibra insist that what they're doing matters. When asked whether rock music today exists as mere vestiges of what once was, the band aggressively answers, "No." Baum acknowledges that a lot has already been done in the name of rock 'n' roll, but insists there's a lot more to do. He elucidates what drives them: "We want to make music that no one's made before," he says, brimming with optimism. "We want to create something totally new." Zumwalde goes a step further, suggesting that ZibraZibra is party to a groundswell of aesthetic import. "We're at the front end of something. The front end of a wave," he asserts. "Something totally new and exciting." When pressed for the specifics of this wave of innovation, they are less sure. Baum mentions maximizing the potential of the digital revolution, and Zumwalde outlines his desire to walk the line between irony and sincerity both musically and lyrically. At the very least, all four exhibit an obvious exuberance when contemplating the possibilities.
To be frank, I have doubts that donning windbreakers and wetsuits and singing about "The Rules to be Cool" exemplifies the reemergence of the heart and soul of rock 'n' roll. ZibraZibra have wholeheartedly embraced technology, and it's provided them with some pretty neat tricks. But it also infuses, at times, a sense of cold remove that is antithetical to the raw, visceral immediacy that makes up the best of the genre.
Then again, had anyone told me four years ago that pitcher Kenny Rogers would renew my faith in the rightness of the world, I would have doubted her, too.
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