“We break the rules”
So says lead singer Amy MacKown on Simple Tune, the penultimate track of the debut album from Oxford’s current premiere Reggae outfit, ZAIA. We wouldn’t say they break the rules so much as blend and bend them, juggling genres and playing with preconceptions throughout this fascinating and infectious summertime record.
ZAIA’s is an unquestionably 21st century sound, following in the dancing footsteps of a raft of artists who’ve brought out the brighter, crisper, sunnier side of reggae in the twenty-teens. The clearest similarities are to Chronixx, Nubiyan Twist, The Skints, and the less bassy moments of Gentleman’s Dub Club. In Liam’s words, they’re “very Rodigan”.
a brilliant slice of simple summer listening that you won’t tire of
The album always has reggae at its roots, but not roots reggae as such. James Bolton’s drums, Josh Hughes’ rhythm guitar and David Tomlinson’s bass all remain relatively muted in the mix, never carrying tracks in the roots style. Meanwhile, big dub-esque echoes open up the negative space those parts leave, creating a feeling of openness which dominates the first two thirds of Butterflies. At its best this is reminiscent of classic dancehall acts like Sister Nancy, Barrington Levy and Gregory Isaacs. There’s even a feel of early reggae in there, a kind of engineered (maybe over-engineered) version of the unmistakable unmastered sound of bands like The Ethiopians.
Elsewhere, though, this mix makes the sound feel somewhat diluted. The echo on MacKown’s vocal in particular is a bit overused (this stripped back live version of Back to My Get Out feels much improved without it). Several times on the first playthrough we found ourselves longing to hear more of Tomlinson’s intricate, bouncing basslines. When the drums did take the lead a bit more to drive up the tempo on the title track, the standout tune that closes the record, we felt like we were finally hearing what ZAIA could really do.
But after a couple more plays, that started to feel like an unfair judgement. To explain why, we’re gonna break down the three main components of ZAIA’s sound – bear with us.
From the first line, MacKown’s vocals are key to the record – in fact, the band was inspired to take on its current form when the other members heard her sing for the first time. Her voice immediately put us in mind of genius Skints frontwoman Marcia Richards; she has a similar talent for mixing up her rhythm within lines, within words even, without ever losing her connection to the rest of the band. We’d have liked to hear more from other band members though – on 2015 EP Challenge 145, Tomlinson takes over Letter from an Old Friend with a folky vocal that we loved. As brilliantly as MacKown’s voice works with ZAIA’s broader sound, it feels a bit of a shame to not have him appear in that capacity on Butterflies. Lyrically, there’s a lot of variation here. MacKown goes from dreamlike and entrancing on Under the Tree, to reflective and personal on Back to My Get Out, to kinda generic on Fire in My Heart, towards simplicity and power through the latter part of the album.
The second striking thing about this album is the way it continually experiments, dipping into other genres, to mixed effect. Dark Days is the most experimental track, and notable as the closest to political Butterflies gets. There’s an unexpected stadium rock guitar solo, MacKown recites Luke 9:58, and the static-heavy use of archive samples reminded Rowan of that one Green Day album after American Idiot that everyone forgets about – it’s all a bit baffling. On the other hand, My House Grows in the Sun has a beautiful gospel feel, distant choral backing vocals following MacKown as she reaches for the sublime with open notes and spiritual lyrics. The intros of the tracks are often the most genre-bending moments. The start of Fire in My Heart had Liam expecting a trance drop and Rowan something clubby; neither of us were convinced. But the raindrop keys that open the title track hyped us right up for the reggae to hit, and the drum and bass flavour it brings with it when it does is ecstatic.
As a musical whole it is certainly greater than the sum of its parts, which speaks to the real skill of these nine musicians
The third thing, the thing that really defines the album, is ZAIA’s sublimely constructed, extraordinarily infectious reggae groove. Every part, not just the drums, guitar and bass but the brass, the keys, even MacKown’s striking vocal, are subservient to that groove. As a musical whole it is certainly greater than the sum of its parts, which speaks to the real skill of these nine musicians. On first listen, all that experimentation kind of distracted us from it, and eight tracks in when MacKown sang “All I wanted was a simple tune”, we felt just the same way. But really, that perfect reggae simplicity had been there the whole time. Simple Tune simply tuned us into ZAIA’s real talent, and on second listen the rest of the album really came to life. Rowan’s barely stopped listening to it since.
So pick up a copy of Butterflies if you can, and put it on in the background while you’re working, or cooking, or best of all just laying around in the sunshine. Let ZAIA’s groove flow into your mind and your tapping feet. Occasionally it’ll surprise you with a left-field genre hop or rhythmic quirk, and maybe it’ll click for you quicker than it did for us. Whenever it does, you’ll have yourself a brilliant slice of simple summer listening that you won’t tire of, and no doubt you’ll be as keen to try and see ZAIA live as we are.
Butterflies is out on Friday (May 26th)
All images credit: ZAIA
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