Album review: The Zolas ” Ancient Mars”

text: Evie Saphire-Bernstein

90’s rock music will forever remain in the arms of Kurt Cobain and his band, Nirvana. But there were many other great rock bands in the 90’s: R.E.M., U2, Pearl Jam, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Oasis. And for those who grew up in the 90’s, there is always a sound, a feeling, whenever  one of their old favorite songs from that period of time comes on the air. Nostalgia mixed with sadness, a sense of what was, and what is no longer. There was a raw honesty to many of those songs that still remain their favorites: the haunting questions in ‘How’s It Gonna Be’ by Third Eye Blind, the ache from uncertainty in  “Wonderwall” by Oasis, the anger and angst in “Smells Like Teen Spirit” by Nirvana.

And yet, every once in a while, you hear something that almost takes you back there. Something that’s similar, but different. The Zolas new release, Ancient Mars is such an album. Some of their music feels like the soundtrack of childhood, but with different words.

There are shades of Rooney and Oasis in  Ancient Mars, especially on the title track of the album. ‘Ancient Mars’ sounds like a dreamy pop song set in the past. The Zolas combination of pop hooks and solid guitar licks, mixed slightly with electronic, sweetness, and despair almost sounds like nostalgia personified–but for what? It is firmly rooted in the present, but  somehow calls to the past. Maybe it’s the band’s sincerity. Their raw emotion is in every song, just the way music used to be. Since it’s so difficult to find real emotion or sincerity in rock or pop music these days, anything that hints at this soul-baring truth automatically sounds like the something from yesteryear.

But enough about the past. The Zolas are a rock band from Canada. Ancient Mars is their second album, following 2010’s  Tic Toc Tic.  This new release is full of slower, thoughtful songs, but that doesn’t take away from their more energetic attempts. “Ancient Mars” is excellent, and ‘Knot in my Heart’ is a fun, faster song as well. It manages to combine guitar, piano, and a reverbed vocal to sound both contemporary, and historically grounded. “Escape Artist” deserves a mention as well, a piano-driven half fast/ half slow song that remains with you long after it has finished.

But The Zolas feel most comfortable in slower jams. “Cold Moon” sounds like it was recorded in an empty bar, way past closing, the singer alone and drunk, missing the one he’s lost. “We’ll meet again beneath the cold, cold moon,” he sings plaintively, even as other instruments intrude into the song, detracting from the singularity of the message, yet adding to the aloneness the song embodies.

In the end, the Zolas’s new album is a sincere attempt at sincerity. It is straightforward and heartfelt, if not a bit indulgent. But the sweetness is there, the heart is there. They dress it up with different instruments, reverb and take-you-by-surprise instrumentals –is that a organ? An harmonica? But beneath everything, the lyrics take you in, and the vocals keep you there. Welcome back sincere rock. We’ve certainly missed you.