On Second Listen: Smashing Pumpkins – Zeitgeist

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Seven years after Billy Corgan disbanded the infamous 90s mainstream phenomenon, The Smashing Pumpkins, he brought it back together–well, technically speaking. While he forgot to call friends James Iha and D’arcy Wretzsky (including Melissa Auf der Maur if you want to get really technical), he managed to snag Jimmy Chamberlin back on drums, which wasn’t too hard, given the two have collaborated on everything post-Pumpkins together. Still, almost a decade later, Chamberlin has the energy of a ten year old with ADHD and all the poppy snares and thrashing cymbals stand out; unfortunately, it’s Corgan, whose angst feels more posh and fabricated than surreal and intrepid. So, what was the end result? The hodgepodge of musical success that is, Zeitgeist.

“Doomsday Clock” kicks off the seventh studio album with a gothic primordial sense of dread. The village voice of Corgan’s echoes off of Chamberlin’s tribe-like drumming with some soloing that brings out the more metallic-like influences of the Pumpkins. The frontman’s first words are questions, “Is everyone afraid? /Is everyone ashamed?” It’s obvious there is still a sense of depression and misery in Corgan’s life and on this track it’s rather authentic, at least in comparison to the remainder of the album. On the whole, “Doomsday Clock” is a decent introduction to the album, introducing the recording’s polished sound and raspy vocals.

“7 Shades of Black” kicks it up a notch and sets a riding rhythmic pace that recalls early Pumpkins life, circa Gish-era. The bass sticks out, which is unfortunate that Ginger Reyes wasn’t allowed to contribute, and Corgan’s tone is near perfect. Squealing guitar lines add some energy which unfortunately comes to an end all too quickly. Much like “Zero”, the song is plagued by high energy with a short mortality rate. It’s all over by the time it comes to life.

Harmonies chant and synchronize and the likes of Foreigner or Duran Duran come to mind in “Bleeding the Orchid”, which is a rocking ballad with a bit more distortion in mind. The key element here is Corgan’s knack for guitar instrumentation. Unfortunately, the lyrics are piss poor (by Corgan’s standards) and the incessant chanting of “Bleeding the orchid…” tires, but altogether, the atmospheric life of the song pulls you in, but there’s not much else after that initial reaction.

It’s a good thing “That’s The Way (My Love Is)” rings next because it’s everything a single should be: catchy, memorable, and sticky. Corgan’s layered harmonies wall the listener and the distant solos go in and out, mish mashing into what may be the best softer rocker the band has to offer anew. It’s a shame the timid, emotional introduction Corgan plays at earlier shows is missing, as it would have befit the actual recording.
As if its a one-two punch, “Tarantula”, the obvious first single, is a clincher, and much like “Doomsday Clock” offers an insight into what’s the band has to offer. Rioting guitar lines, trigger happy drumming, and soft spells here and there. The chorus is catchy, while the lyrics seem juvenile in comparison to Corgan’s back catalogue. Nevertheless, it’s still one of the powerhouse tracks on Zeitgeist and implicitly a single.

Much like many albums, the middle tends to get soft. Zeitgeist is no exception. Two songs, “Starz” and “United States”, are hampered by lengthy tracks (especially the latter) that never really prove endearing or conclusive. The former suffers from an exhaustive amount of double tracking by vocals, perhaps even quadruple tracking here (something which essentially kills this album), and the chorus seems cliché and indifferent. The nearly ten minute opus that is “United States” is riddled with solos and drum patterns that might seem great live, but on record find themselves lost and repetitive. The ending is rocking, but you’ll have to sift through five minutes of nonsense to enjoy it.

By the second half of the album, Corgan brings back the guns of enchanting pop. “Neverlost” sounds like a b-side to Machina/The Machines of God but with the current edge the band is purporting. On second thought, it also bears similarities, at least in rhythm, to last the Red Hot Chili Peppers tune, “Hey”, off of their last album Stadium Arcadium–though this is unintentional, of course.

What really shines is “Bring the Light”, quite possible the catchiest song Corgan has written since the Mellon Collie years. From the palm muted opener to the explosive back and forth riffle ball guitar writing to the early 80s soloing, the song will undoubtedly stay in anyone’s head. “(Come On) Let’s Go!” is fun, but a little too similar to “Zero” and seems more filler than runner ups to a fan favorite.

The last two songs on the album are surprising. Where it would seem poignant and fitting to have an acoustic, mellow song with the likes of “Disarm”, Corgan chose to take the now concert ballad, “For God and Country”, and revisit the more electronic aspects of his career (e.g. The Future Embrace); therefore, the song now sounds more like a Pet Shop Boys cover than the typical ballad that would be fitting. On a more positive note, the eerie piano notes that recall Pink Floyd’s “High Hopes” fit the song, however.

Unfortunately Zeitgeist ends with what can be considered the Pumpkins’ greatest disappointment of a song (or a closer, for that matter), the very Enya-like “Pomp & Circumstance”. A song more bloated than an Irishman at the end of March, this should have been a sick ending to an already heavy album; instead, it’s a washed out song that really does nothing but add more minutes. The fans are right in believing “Gossamer” would have been a choice ending, either that or one of the better b-sides, take your pick, “Zeitgeist”, “Stellar”, or “Ma Belle.”

Zeitgeist is not a perfect album. The production mirrors Queen’s works too much, which simply do not cut it for a band like the Smashing Pumpkins. Raw aggression and clean tempos are better suited and all the energy seems lost in the mixing board. What’s also plaguing this album is the fact that it’s a two man show, and it really shows. No longer are the harmonies intertwined with a female presence, now it’s a constant Corgan to Corgan hodgepodge that is actually more tiring than relaxing.

From track to track, even the ones that work, Corgan seems too up front, and not metaphorically, but literally. The vocals at times sound too loud or separate from the band itself. That third party angle is missing, whose shoes seem to be filled by producer Roy Thomas Baker, who brings an 80’s like sound to the whole schlemiel. It works sometimes, but like most fans might say, it’s missing Iha, even if Corgan allegedly did everything beforehand.

Nevertheless, and despite its flaws, Zeitgeist will surely satisfy the hungry appetites of Pumpkinheads, modern rock fans, and/or grunge enthusiasts. Some might enjoy it over the very atmospheric, quasi-poppy Machina/The Machines of God, while others will run from it as if it’s pure blasphemy to the band’s original discography. Whatever the case, it comes down to how you accept the band today. Will you compare them to yesterday? Or, will you accept that Corgan’s the brain child, who’s finally triggering the right nerves to write Pumpkin-esque material again? When you’ve come to those conclusions, then maybe you’ll enjoy Zeitgeist.

Until then, keep spinning Siamese Dream.

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