When record collectors, encyclopaedic muso obsessives and ‘proper’ musicians get together, it is invariably a recipe for utter tedium. An overload of ideas and obscure reference points collide with beard stroking intellectualism and clinical musicology lectures. Before you know it a prog-rock, jazz odyssey, psych-blues fusion album based on the life of King Arthur is born and the band is being tipped as ‘ones to watch’ by the culture section of The Sunday Times.
The difference with Canadian four-piece Zeus is that their nerdish eclecticism is refined into creating perfect power pop. Their magpie’s nest of shiny, stylish, vintage nuggets has been pilfered from pop’s golden ages and is welded into a pick’n’mix of soft rock melodies. The oddity is hearing it all together. At times they sound like Sparks playing Beatles covers produced by Quincy Jones. Or the Bee Gees doing Bohemian Rhapsody. Or The Band fronted by Prince. Or Vampire Weekend led by Brian Wilson. Or Flaming Lips jamming with the Mamas and the Papas and Fleetwood Mac. It’s heady old mix of bubblegum harmonies from down the ages that winds up sounding more interesting and unique the more you hear of it.
Originally part of a backing band for roots rocker Jason Collett, childhood mates Carlin Nicholson and Mike O’Brien teamed up with Neil Quin in 2009 and formed an unusually cordial arrangement whereby they all share frontman and songwriting duties. With Rob Drake on drums they quickly became a stand-out part of Toronto’s vibrant music scene, were nominated for the Polaris Music Prize for debut Say Us (2010) and went on to tour Europe with Dan Mangan. Now returning with third album Classic Zeus, they’re being tipped to follow in the footsteps of Broken Social Scene, Feist and Metric and make an international breakthrough.
Whether they have the heart-grabbing, infectious anthems to achieve that is another matter. Lead single Miss My Friends is probably their best stab at it; rolling along with lush, sun-kissed production, calypso guitar licks and an 80s backbeat, it channels childhood summertime nostalgia into a modern R&B ballad. Elsewhere, 27 Is The New 17 is a quirky indie rock confessional, Where Is My Love drips with 60s West Coast guitar jangle, Straight Through The Light builds into a high pitch country gospel epic and album closer Throw It On the Fire winds it all down with a lilting campfire singalong.
The ambition and vision is admiral and their ability to re-imagine the lost art of the pop song into idiosyncratic, retro dreams is a noble pursuit – but it’s all too saccharine and honeyed for these ears. Once the sugar rush wears off, you’re left with tooth decay and diabetes. Guess I’m more of a meat and potatoes man.