I left 2016 with some over-the-top Japanese Amebix-worship in the shape of early Acrostix and, to smoothen everyone's transition into the new year, I shall enter 2017 with (wait for it, wait for it...) more Japanese Amebix-worship! Now, before you roll your eyes, point your bony finger at me, blame me for this indecent display of unoriginality and accuse me of laziness, let's take a deep breath and think about it for a second. And while we're at it let's open that can of cider you've been saving for special occasions.
I cannot count the many times I have heard people complain about punk being redundant and boring for its lack of originality... Usually, as a backing for such arguments, a diatribe about bands sounding like Discharge (or any other cult band depending on what kind of punks you hang out with) quickly follows, as if it were the irrefutable evidence of punk's hopeless lack of creativity. And I am not saying that there is no truth in such claims and I often find myself mumbling whenever I hear a new "crust" band trying aimlessly to be a death-metal one but ending up sounding boring and stale. Still, "worship-type bands" should not be discarded just for the fact that they build their discourse on another band's legacy and sometimes it requires a lot of inventiveness and indeed of creativity to emulate a specific band in a way that is highly referential but still brings an interesting, fresh perspective. Basically both unoriginal and original at the same time and still sounding good. After all, you could very well see the very careful emulation of Discharge's "Why" as a rather interesting exercise that paradoxically needs an important level of artistic sensibility and clever songwriting to be properly achieved. Of course, Discharge is not the most relevant example here since repetition and redundancy were crucial to their music in the first place as they shaped a new language and semiotic system that many bands still directly use nowadays, the degree of strictness varying from one band to another.
Of course, one is free to think that "worship-type bands" are ridiculous and goofy and that they should play stoner-ska or blackened-shoegaze or something that has never been done before instead of rewriting Amebix songs. Like Zoe. Because that is exactly what this band is doing. They take several elements of the Amebix legacy, sometimes directly referring to the Amebixian scriptures, at other times including post-Amebix influences, and blend them, from a Japanese crust context, in order to create a music that embodies amebixness and whose originality resides precisely in this creative drive that encompasses both the actual band and its direct legacy. On a metatextual level, Zoe also incarnate the potent fascination that Amebix have always held in the punk world. The overt referentiality can then be seen as a reflection of the mythic quality of the band, Zoe's work thus becoming a self-aware discourse about both amebixian music and our own obsession with it (the claim that the band aimed at creating a metadiscourse might be far-fetched but that is my own reading, make of it what you will).
Zoe were from Osaka and apparently formed in the late 90's, although their first demo, "The beginning", was only recorded in 2002 because of line-up instability from what I can gather. At the core of the band was Taki (aka TM Spider on "From Hell" and Lightning Baron on "The last axe beat"), previously in Gloom, Defector (as the "metal guitar") or War Cry, who played the guitar, sang and even produced Zoe's records so it is safe to assume that much of the songwriting was also his. The name "Zoe" is a bit mysterious in terms of paronomasia... "Inferno Punx" spells it as "Z.O.E." so it might very well be an acronym I am not aware of (but I don't have a clue either so any informed guess is welcome here). Taken simply as "Zoe", the name might refer to "zoea", which is some sort of larva in the crustacean world. This would make sense I suppose since the zoea is a primitive life form just like the amoeba, the spelling variation being yet an additional reference to Amebix and their name-making process. On the records, the phrase "The darkest heavy" actually precedes the name "Zoe". I cannot really pronounce "The darkest heavy Zoe" without giggling so I assume it is not really a part of the moniker but must be read as some sort of slogan beside being a wink at "The darkest hour" and stating what Zoe were going for in terms of mood: dark and heavy.
I distinctly remember the first time I heard of Zoe. A mate of mine, known to be a grumpy but quite knowledgeable geezer in terms of Japanese noize and crust (he even distributed some Crust War releases in Paris in the early 00's), told me that he was about to receive a new record from the label that I might enjoy. To be truthful, I think he phrased it like that: "They are called Zoe and they are dreadful, absolute rubbish Amebix-type heavy-metal with bloody makeup on... I am sure you are going to love them". And of course, he was right, I loved them straight away.
The band's first recording was the four-song 2002 demo entitled "The beginning", a rather thinly produced effort (it even has some unwanted feedback here and there) that still set the basis for the Zoe sound to great effect. By no means was Zoe the first band to go for Amebix-worship, but they took a rather unique creative stance. Bands like Axegrinder ("Serpent men" era) and Misery had reworked the Amebix sound very early on by making it heavier, doomier and, dare I say it, crustier, which was the logical step in the late 80's. Zoe, on the other hand, from the vantage point of view of the early 00's, did not merely take Amebix into account but the entire Amebix world, in other terms the "post-Amebix' bands like Zygote or Muckspreader or those that gravitated around them like Smartpils and other pagan psychedelic acts. This shift informed Zoe's music and aesthetics deeply and unless you are actually interested in Amebix as a band, vibe and worldview, you will probably miss what Zoe were ambitiously trying to do: syncretizing the Amebix world. I am not saying they did it perfectly but the intent is indeed fascinating and taking it into consideration, it made perfect sense that Zoe included heavy-metal, grungy and psychedelic bits into their music, just like Zygote did.
But let's get back to the band's discography before getting seriously into the Lp. After the demo, Zoe had one instrumental song, "Spere alive", included on "The Darkest 4" compilation tape, a rough number that sounded like an eerie tribute to the song "Monolith" that opens the eponymous album. In 2003, Crust War released the Ep "From Hell", a much better-recorded work with a title-track that still stands probably as the best blend of Zygote, Amebix and Antisect to this day. Apparently, Zoe were meant to do a split record with Effigy at that time. The two bands were close (the members of Effigy even told the Zoe story on the album's insert... with added Effigy visuals!) and, although the split did not materialize, not only did Zoe and Effigy release an Ep with the same title, "From Hell", almost simultaneously, but the bands also did their own respective version of the same song, also called "From Hell", which highlighted their different but ultimately complimentary takes on the old-school crust sound. Listening carefully to these two versions back to back is actually a brilliant exercise and an articulate essay about the discrepancies and parallels between them would make for an ideal entry test for my soon-to-open Department of Crust Studies. Right? The Ep also included some sort of strange teaser with just the first minute of "Spider" that would appear in its entirety on the Lp (I haven't figured that one out yet).
The album "The last axe beat" is undeniably Zoe's most accomplished work (the Lp format arguably fits the genre better). Perfectly-produced (you can really tell since four of the seven songs are new recordings of previously released songs) and displaying top notch musicianship, it is expectedly saturated with varying degrees of Amebix and Zygote referentiality, in shape and content, but it does not have the dreaded sloppy patchwork feel. If anything, I would say it sounds like a huge painting representing the Amebix universe, or like very well-crafted and tasteful crustpants. The music is certainly dark and heavy but not in the common accepted sense of "loud and crushing" that too many bands adopt (and no, adding death-metal riffs and guttural vocals will not necessarily make your sound heavier or darker). The album is groovy, powerful and has a genuinely epic quality but must be understood as a vibe-driven record. There is a very specific atmosphere pervading the songs, although they are quite diverse in terms of beats and moods. "The last axe beat" revolves around a carefully construed "Amebix essence" that is to be found in different times, places and shapes in the Amebix universe (I am aware that I am starting to sound like a New Age preacher but hold on in there). It has the same ritualistic, tribal, pagan feel with an earthy and dark but euphoric psychedelic vibe reinforced with the high-pitched almost heavy-metal vocals. You could make a comprehensive list of each amebixian element and then find them all on "The last axe beat" (which can be played as an Amebix bingo as well): the "Arise!" tribal beats, the "Monolith" synth-driven bits, the "Wind of knives" heavy rock/grungy moments, the classic Amebix arpeggio ones, the typical bass sound, the fast thrashy hardcore, the tuneful and lugubrious zygoty guitar leads... without mentioning several obvious reworkings of actual songs, the literal intertextuality of the song titles and the many visual references, from the font to the Amebix face.
"The last axe beat" is not a perfect album in terms of narration, as I feel it may be lacking in storytelling structure (something Amebix actually excelled at) that could have been strengthened with an actual intro and maybe a couple of additional songs (the Lp is rather short). Another missed opportunity for me lies in the overall look of the Lp, which is fine but not really spectacular. However, it is still a unique and fascinating record that is more subtle than it looks and offers a paradoxically creative perspective on crust music by working on a very specific realm. It probably will not speak to those of us that are not that much into Amebix (or are just not nerds), but as a record that literally and figuratively epitomizes the obsession with Amebix and genuinely, self-consciously embraces it, it is unrivaled. Following the album, Zoe contributed two songs to the "Konton damaging ear massacre" compilation Lp (re-recordings of "New world" and "Zygospore" that smartly refer to different recording sessions of Amebix and prove that the same song recorded differently can significantly nuance the original moods) and to "Amebix Japan" but then, at this point, it feels almost redundant or even offensive to mention it.