By Rick Shithouse
The concept release is something I dearly love to take in as a sumptuous feast of synthual delights, a full multiple course affair that creates something new and something special. There's been many noteworthy concept releases over the last year or so, particularly Jon Of The Shred's Scythe project, C-Jeff's Big Steel Wheels and Protector 101's Wastelands spring to mind as masterworks in realising a concept, but many, many EP's have done so on a smaller scale as well as full albums.
Scale is the word I'd like to really concentrate on here. The scale of the project in a concept album in 2014 opens up an incredible amount of avenues for creativity outside of the music alone and Shio-Z has pushed himself to the limits with his endeavour for this year: The Z Machinery. More than just an album that explores a thematic the Z Machinery is a structured idea and story that covers video, writing and music in a cross-media way that really expands the scope for what is possible in taking 80s inspired synth music into a whole new galaxies of possibilities.
As I mentioned there have been numerous kick arse concept releases over the last year and when I've gotten a little back story from the producers themselves and learned more about it there always seems to be concessions made that reduce the original vision. Be it constraints on time, resources or just plan bad luck it is seldom evidenced that producer releases a concept album that is a mirror of their original vision. I've not talked to Shio-Z about the Z Machinery directly and I may be incorrect in assuming it fulfils his original vision, but holy cow; he must be very, very content with what has been released as final product.
In fact, 'final product' is really probably a rather misguided term as the product itself promises and delivers so much that there is still a lot of the Z Machinery's story that can be expanded upon. What we have in this album is an introduction to the entire idea with back stories and explanations and then we're left awaiting what could happen next. That isn't to say this isn't a fully explored and complete experience, as it really is, but the ideas that Shio-Z introduces us to over the course of the multi pronged multimedia attack really opens things up for a new world for the Shio-Z experience to exist in.
If you are entirely new to this project I highly advise watching all of the videos contained on Shio-Z's site for the Z Machinery here. The videos are all marvellous tools for explaining the theories and ideas behind the Z Machinery itself and will put you in good stead for listening to the album. But before we get to the album watching at least this video is a must:
The crux of the concept is a new technology that acts as a way to see future events that then can be changed via the Z Machinery. This is wonderfully explored via the videos and sets up an incredibly wide range of possibilities for future episodes, but that is something we'll have to wait and discover more of in 2015. For now the first pillar of the Z Machinery is an album of the same name and it is a hugely rewarding and wild ride into the science fiction fantasies made music by Shio-Z.
The whole point of a concept album, from the listener's perspective, is to be told a story that over arches the entire record. This is a simplistic definition but it's really about how complex or simplistic the story is; and the more detailed the story the higher the chance of losing coherence and direction. Over the twelve tracks of the Z-Machinery we're taken into a story that covers a vast amount of concepts and musical styles but the coherence is always maintained. There are motif's throughout the album that tie all the pieces together incredibly well and makes the tracks all feel like they're cut from the same cloth even though on the surface the material can sometimes differ immeasurably.
That is really due to the craftsmanship of Shio-Z himself. Each track explores a new facet of the story, with later tracks harkening back to previous ideas while continuing in new directions. The use of his own vocal talents along with Synthetix.FM favourite Who Ha and previous Shio-Z chanteuse Claudia Ortolani gives a human side to the story and through other voices and make the cohesiveness between the tracks, somehow, even stronger. The sum of the parts are certainly much greater than the individual tracks but all of them stand up as wonderfully clear episodic pieces in their own right. No corners have been cut on the songwriting, production or creativity and that is what shines through every second of the album. One thing I highly recommend for those listening to the record in the favourite music player is to set the album to 'gapless play' as many of the pieces directly follow on from each other seamlessly.
The epic nature of the Z Machinery begins with the opening track 'In Some Nowhere'. As one of the more soundtrack oriented pieces this sets a wonderfully inquisitive tone with darker aspects looming behind the synths. The atmosphere then gets rocked with the powerhouse 'The Secret Lab' as huge basslines drive dramatic melodic passages. The tone of the instruments is so crisp and clean throughout this album and the inclusion of strings and other varied sounds later makes for an always involving, evolving and intriguing synthscape.
With 'A New Machine Is Born' Shio-Z really unleashes some rockin of epic proportions as the guitars crunch onto the scene for the first time. I can't help but be reminded of Patrick Cowley's classic 'Megatron Man' in the guitar track which totally rocks hard and the story is transported into its next phase superbly well. This then opens up into one of the real highlights on the record for me with 'Engage' featuring Who Ha. The use of Who Ha's very individual vocal style amid the thumping percussion and dialogue samples is thoroughly engaging and the chorus just kills in megaton overdoses of radness.
The atmospheric tracks on Z Machinery punctuate much of the scientific theories through repeated refrains done in different instruments, such as on the grandiose 'Particle Collision Pt 1' which introduces clean natural piano sounds and even a hint of xylophone to the synthscape as the Z Machinery gears up to enact its own science defying magic against a sparkling space synth background. 'Chaos Theory' finds Shio-Z himself on vocal duties in one of the darker pieces on the album. His style reminds me of a cross between David Gahan and the late Peter Steele with the emotional depth and tortured, yearning tone felt through each lyric. A more morose angle is given to this side of the story as moral implications begin to enter the scope.
The tempo rises and the high energy OutRun styled 'Cyclotronic Velocity' bursts into focus with fervour and passion. The synths speed and weave in and out guitars before taking an evolutionary step into a harp form, replete with backing string section. The crossing over from one world and dimension to another has begun. Looking back is no longer and option, a new era begins. Returning once again to Shio-Z's roster is the ever talented Claudia Ortolani in the follow up titled 'Fahrenheit'. The drama and cutting vocals perfectly complete the Spacy/Italo based music and turns into a magnificently well developed pop track. The sharpness of the orchestral stabs just adds even more to the authenticity.
'Particle Collision Pt 2' brings back a smoother atmosphere as Shio-Z takes time to explore his new creation. The track moves into a totally killer upbeat bass driven disco masterpiece that channels vintage sounds and moods and adds just enough modernity to the synthscape. Ideas are full of energy and positivity with an air of jubilation permeating the atmosphere. 'How It Works (Professor Shiozawa Explains' then takes the listener into the mind of the Z Machinery's creator with a passage that reminds me a great deal of Pink Floyd's progressions, really adding an immeasurable presence to the experience.
The full power of the 'Z Machinery' is brought to bear in this title track the expand the scope even further with mixtures of 70s progressive sounds mixing with dramatic synths and OutRun energies to rock you all the right ways. The guitar and synth accents built into this track are especially impressive as the excitement builds with each passing second. The final track for the album takes on the role of closing one door and opening another as the consequences of the Z Machinery being to be understood and its ramifications for the future are brought into question. To complement the ending of this part of the story we're treated to another kick arse guitar and synth driven anthem that piles on the excitement with chapter after chapter perfectly orchestrated rockin.
With the finish of this final track one is left basking in the glow of the Z Machinery's seemingly endless power and one just can't wait to see what happens next. This record sets an absolutely perfect stage from which I hope Shio-Z continues to tell this story from. The vast scope for this album and its realisation is something that is wonderful to experience. To take all these pieces of information Shio-Z has used to set-up this story and then be able to experience it first hand via this record is really very special indeed. This release should be supported by a great many people in and out of 80s inspired synth scene as it has truly massive crossover appeal in it's subject matter and the media employed.
Telefuture Records presents Shio-Z's Z Machinery album on their Bandcamp page here. This is absolutely a Synthetix Reference Experience and the amount of effort Shio-Z has put into this production becomes immediately evident from the first track on the album, even as a stand-alone record without the killer science fiction story backing it up this album is a very important and perfectly executed journey through a myriad of vintage synthscapes and is brimming over with new creative ideas. In the Z Machinery Shio-Z has created something that I hope continues and grows as not even the sky is the limit for where this concept could go.