Zebulon Pike II: The Deafening Twilight
The only thing easy about listening to Zebulon Pike II: The Deafening Twilight is, well, putting it back in the jewel case after it's finished. Far darker than its sprightly 2004 predecessor, And Blood Was Passion, Twilight's melodies don't unfurl seamlessly, but rather drag themselves up and down and over and around your noggin like they're scaling a climbing wall wearing a ball and chain. Sometimes, during monumental tracks, such as "And Blood Was Passion" (in true AC/DC or Queen fashion, a good album title becomes an even better song) or "Ashes of Xerxes, Breath of Titan," the dark, crushing weight of the band presses down on your chest like so many boulders. The first album might have threaded its melancholy melodies with exuberant guitar harmonies and heart-pounding rave-ups, but here, every note feels hard-fought and precious. The compositions are heavy on their feet, trudging far more often than they run.
But don't let this scare you away from what is one of the very best brainy hard-rock records of the last few years—chew your way through to the center and much goodness awaits. In many ways, Twilight is more intellectually exhilarating than Passion, revealing a band that can fuse elements of 20th-century avant-garde composition, free improvisation, and doomy heavy metal seamlessly and still maintain a raw, emotional edge. There's a quiet duel between guitars on "Ashes of Xerxes" that owes far more to freefall improv than heavy-ballad frippery. The buildup to the grinding tectonic death march of "Structure of the Black Stallion" is an unsentimentally elegant melody that could easily be re-envisioned as a jazz chamber piece. The track concludes nearly 20 minutes later with a musical moment that manages to capture the deftness of this band: a pulse of notes that feels like Philip Glass, but ends with a rock guitar flourish.