Egg – Zilla
At some point in 2004, Zilla remade themselves. Once a fully improvisational jazz/funk side project for SCI drummer Michael Travis, they suddenly became a fully improvisational livetronica outfit. And then earlier this year, just before preparing to do a month-long west coast tour, keyboardist Steve Vidaic left the group, cutting Zilla down to three: Travis, bassist Aaron Holstein, and percussionist/hammered dulcimer whiz Jamie Janover. The trio then did the only thing a good improvisational band would do in such a situation: hit the road, and figure out how to make it work.
The tracks culled together for Egg were hatched in Colorado at the end of this run, and they show a band well-adjusted to, and more than comfortable with, the extra space. Travis, who originally played guitar and bass during portions of Zilla’s shows, is now firmly behind the kit, anchoring the trance, drum-n-bass, and downtempo grooves with occasional splashes of hand- and electronic-percussion. Travis’ paring down of instruments is one indication that he no longer wants Zilla to be thought of as a side project. Somewhat ironic, though, is that unless you already know who Travis is, you would not know by listening to Egg that Zilla is (or was ever) “his” side project. His playing is reliable throughout, but never exhibitionistic (ala STS9’s Zach Velmer). It is a mark of Travis’ humility and dedication to collaborative musical exploration that he be completely comfortable with playing an equal (if not occasionally minor) role in a band that has relied on his name to get their shows booked.
Zilla’s de facto leader is Janover, Travis’ longtime friend and easily one of the most awe-inspiring musicians I have had the fortune to see live. Janover has long needed to be in a touring band, if for no other reason than to give a greater amount of people the privilege of watching him perform. A world-champion hammered dulcimer player, Janover has always been interested in introducing the instrument to new genres (a good place to start is his sprawling, guest-filled Realms). Zilla’s electro-transformation has not only made him the world’s first purveyor of “dulcitronica”, which is on display throughout Egg, it has also pushed him to expand his already impressive on-stage arsenal. His electro mini-kit has made more authentic Zilla’s explorations into the moodier side of jungle, and his sitar playing opened the door to Karsh Kale-like tracks of ethno techno, as on “A Great Many Maps.” His dulcimer playing, meanwhile, remains hypnotic and intricate, drawing on jazz, classical & international styles while always in command of the percussive lexicon of electronic music (e.g. “Exalted Earthworm”).
Of course, no livetronica group can exist without a solid bassist, and the ever-smiling Holstein is more than up to the challenge. His minimalistic funk (as on the disc-opening “Wind Barber”) sets him apart from the drone-oriented playing that dominates the genre, and leaves a great deal of space in the music for passing waves of soundoftentimes from Holstein himself on his newly acquired laptop. His guitar playing/scatting appears here as well on “Rufus”, which is not one of the album’s highlights, but which is much improved over one particularly sappy vamp the group experimented with in Colorado.
Neglecting to touch on the styles of house and progressive trance might make it difficult for Zilla to catch fire in the club scene, but as anyone who has seen them can attest, they are not a band you can easily walk out on. The multi-cultural psychedelic trance-funk displayed on Egg is both a wonderful example of the avenues still to be explored by electronic music, and a reminder that improvisational music can still be both intellectually-satisfying and danceable.