Sound — 8
Zebrahead has been alive and kicking for almost 20 years now, gaining a huge following overseas with their eclectic collection of rock, spanning everything from funk-punk to ska anchored by the rapping vocals of Ali Tabatabaee and long standing singer Matty Lewis. Their latest album "Walk the Plank" is by far their most varied and experimental.
Now, the album is by no means a masterpiece or something Pitchfork would start sweating over. Most songs follow the same verse-chorus-verse-chorus-solo-bridge-chorus pattern that Zebrahead has followed for most of their careers, but it's the spin they give the familiar format that really makes the songs stand out. The band experiments within their comfort zone, bringing in acoustic guitars as anchoring instruments as opposed to simple accents in punk numbers such as the title track "Walk the Plank" and explores new ground in "Under the Deep Blue Sea," an instrumental interlude which sounds great and is something the band's never really tried before.
New guitarist Dan Palmer (of Death By Stereo), who replaced long-time member and talent Greg Bergdorf midway through the band's last album, "Call Your Friends," definitely makes his presence felt, tugging the band's sound in a fresh new direction and providing plenty of good solos and memorable riffs, while vocalist Matty Lewis has really improved his ability, showing some grit in his voice that hasn't been very present in previous albums. This really lifts some songs to a higher level, such as standout track "Kings of the Here and Now" (a surprisingly hardcore punk number).
Overall, this is a fresh new face for Zebrahead, and for a band that's been around for so long, they've done a great job avoiding stagnancy. That said, this band still has trouble getting past "good" and in to "great" territory, and that's where their age starts to show.
Lyrics — 5
As a band that's been around for over 20 years, Zebrahead's probably been able to iron out most of their personal issues, establishing decent lives and good friends, and have been left with... Not much to write about.
This is something that's plagued their lyrics for the past few albums, with songs that reek of bad lyrics and boring themes such as drinking all night, or partying all night, or drinking and partying all night. It gets old fast.
"Walk the Plank" thankfully does away with most of that, with the closest we get being the horrid chorus of "I wanna party party, she wants to party party, we wanna party party" in the opener "Who Brings a Knife to a Gunfight?" But with the party songs gone, the unfortunate fact is that Zebrahead is left with a hit-or-miss album that misses more often than not.
Rapper Ali Tabatabaee isn't really the one to blame here; in fact, he excels in this album, experimenting with flow, bringing in fresh atmospheres and giving new life to his lyrics. "You bite the bullet hard say goodbye to the west coast, pick your poison kill the noise and swallow what you hate the most" is an early example, another being in hard rocker "Wasted Generation" where he screams "Try to make the case I'm numb from all the lies I've tasted." Ali does a great job, bringing in one of his finest performances since the band's first album with Matty, "Broadcast to the World," which really only leaves one culprit.
Singer Matty Lewis seems to be phoning it in, with strong melodies but bland lyrics that make most of the album's first half forgettable. "Headrush" is hard to enjoy when you have to sing along to lines like "Like a royal flush, so good that you cannot ignore, you can't get enough, cuz I'm rotten to the core, no need to fight the battle I've already won the war."
The biggest problem is that this 40 year old man is still trying to sing like a disenfranchised 15 year old, and writing songs like one, too. "Running With Wolves" is a song that took more than one try to make it through, because my eyes kept rolling of their own accord whenever I had to hear "Call it an emergency, victim of society, state of immaturity, where everyone's the enemy," or the chorus of the title track, whose impressive start thanks to Tabatabaee's vocals and the interesting ebb and flow of the instruments' energy is forced to a screeching halt when Lewis starts screaming he's "just a lost cause, in over my head, better of dead." It's a bit of a bummer, really. It seems like the whole band brought their best through 90% of the album, and then Lewis tears a page from my old high school notebook to steal a lyric I wrote in the middle of class and slaps a few "woahs" in there to make a substandard chorus.
Thankfully there are a few songs that excel nonetheless, most of the second half of the album, minus the title track, are great, teeming with energy and singalong choruses that don't make you cringe.
Overall Impression — 7
Overall, "Walk the Plank" is a fun album. Zebrahead is a band that has a unique formula and an energy that never seems to fizzle out. The band is on point musically, has no problems experimenting or stylizing, and are sure to put on a fun show with these new songs. There are still a few wrinkles that need to be ironed out before their next album, but that's a few years away, and while not all of "Walk the Plank" is good enough to keep you busy until then, the songs that are should be good enough to stand out for awhile.