Having released projects titled Failure to Slide and No More Heroes, The Zells were already fluent in despondency before the storm of 2020 hit — so for once, something went right for these guys. The Pittsburgh quintet’s sophomore LP, Ant Farm, is not just their best, most refined, transfixing, and emotionally seizing project yet, but a uniquely articulate statement about our generational plight. Twelve songs that capture the nihilistic bleakness of toiling in an era of historic social inequality while the very institutions we’re indebted to crumble into the dusty terrain of a world that’s burning toward its apocalyptic conclusion.
The band — guitarist trio Frank DiNardo, Jackson Rogers and Phil Kenbok, bassist Roman Benty and drummer Tyler Gallagher — take turns singing about the dejected purgatory of struggling to get out of bed while simultaneously losing the capacity to dream. It’s the sort of downwardly mobile existentialism that could be yelled with a hardcore fury or strummed beneath mawkish folk coos, but The Zells use indie-rock as their medium, flipping a genre that’s historically been a playground for well-off kids to opine about their dorm-room insecurities into a microphone for working-class ennui.
Building upon their singular mesh of sounds — slumped-neck indie-rock, fizzy garage-rock, defiant post-punk, and puffy-white shoegaze rips — the gang drafted a personnel sheet of basement indie who’s who’s that doubles as a useful RIYL list. Adam Reich (Titus Andronicus), Jordyn Blakely (Smile Machine, Bartees Strange, Stove, Maneka), Davey Jones (Lost Boy ?) and RJ Gordon (Baked, Titus Andronicus) make musical cameos, while Gordon engineered and mixed the whole shebang and Big Ups’ Amar Lal mastered it. The Zells have been and always will be proudly lo-fi like their idols in Sebadoh and Guided By Voices, but the songs on Ant Farm sizzle, pop, thrash, and moisten the eyes in a way their previous recordings didn’t, and that’s largely thanks to the sleeker, roomier production.
Most crucially, it’s the elevated songwriting maneuvers that make Ant Farm feel like the album the band have spent the last half-decade working toward. “Mankey” and “Finnerty’s Dream” bask in The Zells’ comfort zone of Dinosaur Jr.-esque sheets of washy guitar noise, while “Payday” and “Hell Car” careen with an angry fervor, the latter boasting the spectacularly snotty mic-drop, “You should be the president since everybody wants you to die.” The inherent business of their three-guitar attack is toned down just a notch on these tracks, giving way to brilliant post-punk builds like the one in “JME,” a motorik gnashing about the “homicidal ideology” of a healthcare system that makes us choose between paying the electric bill or another dose of mood-stabilizing medication
“Truther Uncle” struggles to find sympathy in the worldview of a conspiracy theorist with valid motives but questionable conclusions, while “Suffer and Toil” coughs up hard truths — ”Nothing in life is free/You suffer and toil until you die/That’s how it’s always been/What? Do you think you’re better than history?” — and then washes it all down with a resilient “woo” and a sick guitar solo. There’s levity in this album, too. “Bryan Ray Trout, 1999” is an awesomely weird fantasy about hanging with Rose McGowan and getting in a fight with a drunken Skeet Ulrich, and every line is catchy enough to be the best hook they’ve ever written. “The Upside” is quite literally that, a strikingly beautiful folk-pop life crisis (“I’ve been feeling older all the time now”) with a weepy harmonica wail.
It all ends with a “Hard Reset,” the GBV-ish closer that offers up a double lesson in power-pop perfection and the frigid orthodoxy of Lady Liberty herself. “It was only just to show me, she don’t owe me anything,” Benty repeats with a chipper, nasally sing-song — and then it ends. Nope, not a damn thing. (by Eli Enis)