There’s a virtually unavoidable trajectory for punk and metal bands: start out as noisy and abrasive as possible and get increasingly melodic and mellow as you age and/or learn to write catchy songs. Zebras are an anomaly—they only get heavier and less radio-friendly as time goes on. Formed in Madison in 2007, the band’s early manic synth-punk sound wasn’t pop by any stretch, but it fit snugly into a college-radio definition of “indie rock,” and the band seemed poised for a slow climb (or slide) into mainstream obscurity.
Listening to the band’s new album, The City Of Sun, you’d hardly guess it’s the same group. You scarcely notice that the synths are synths behind this guitar assault, and although some of Zebras’ early songs had a dark, almost doom-y undercurrent to them, they’ve somehow transformed into full-blown metal in the span of eight years. 2012’s patchy Impending Doom EP now sounds clearly transitional, like a band tired of its old sound but unsure what its new sound should be. But the addition of Call Me Lightning drummer/Milwaukee producer extraordinaire Shane Hochstetler seemed to have lit some sort of fire under the asses of core members Vincent Presley (guitar/vocals) and Lacey Smith (keyboards). City Of Sun isn’t just a new style, it’s also the most powerful music of Zebras’ career by far.
Presley used to be a star pupil of the Midwest School of Noise-Rock Yelping—think IfIHadAHifi, Heavy Hand, or any number of other Latest Flame bands—but he’s evidently graduated to a full-throated hardcore scream more indebted to Die Kreuzen or Al Jourgensen. Lucky thing, too, because his riffs are beefier and rife with metallic chugs. The unifying musical thread is Presley’s math-y leads—they may be more distorted and overdriven now, but the trebly ascending patterns of tracks like “Hollow Earth” and “Baalbek” were a hallmark of old Zebras tunes as well.
Smith’s synth playing functions mostly as atmosphere and low-end in this new incarnation, although she comes menacingly to the fore on tracks like “The Bell” and “Vitrified,” adding to the doom-metal weight of the proceedings while creating a creepy, carnivalesque vibe that’s uniquely Zebra-ish. The most punishing track on the album, “Solomon,” is almost pure throwback thrash, featuring Hochstetler at the height of his powers; but again, the synths are the secret weapon, the overall package defying easy categorization. The post-hardcore tag is the most tempting one to slap on the modern Zebras sound, if that’s still a thing, but it’s even more tempting to abandon such tags altogether.
The funny part is that these songs, in their way, are the catchiest ones Presley and Smith have crafted so far. They jostle and careen between different tempos and time signatures like math-rock, and they’re oppressive as hell, but they’re constructed so expertly and performed with such conviction that they’re far more infectious than any of Zebras’ past recordings. Could the Billboard charts be right around the corner? No. But some metalheads’ “Discover Weekly” Spotify playlists…maybe.