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Shape Shift Sean Guthrie , November 23rd, 2015 11:50

Perseverance is weapon A in the modern musicians' armoury. Audiences are overfed, unmotivated to part with their money for music and all too willing to flit from artist to artist in search of the next rush of blood. Loyalty is thin on the ground. The fact groups without sufficient profile to harvest a modest living from touring make it beyond more than a couple of long-players is mostly due to ego or - in the case of Zombi duo Steve Moore and AE Paterra, both individually and collectively - undiluted compulsion. Shape Shift marks album number six in Zombi's more than decade long foray into the ever-growing labyrinth of progressive synth rock, yet to gauge Moore and Paterra's productivity on that statistic alone would be a misjudgment.

Moore has authored a steady flow of solo work under his own name as well as the alias Gianni Russo (including the just-released soundtrack to Belgian horror flick Cub). Working out of a private studio in New York, his activities also include a collaboration with Daniel O'Sullivan of Grumbling Fur in the synth-pop duo Miracle, production work with such fellow travellers as Maserati (on 2012's Maserati VII) and even a stint as guest keyboard player on a North American tour by one of the unwitting architects of the Zombi oeuvre, Italian prog band Goblin.

From his base 100 miles South West in Philadelphia, Moore's partner in excursions into the realms of space-rock fantasy is no less driven, diligently building a fine canon of epic synth music under the nom de plume Majeure. His debut LP Timespan is the equal of anything Paterra has contributed to in Zombi - as well as more recently working alongside British film composer Paul Lawler in the duo Contact. He also helmed the kit on stage for Maserati after the untimely death of drummer Jerry Fuchs in 2009. In short, Moore and Paterra don't want for motivation.

Nor, thankfully, do they want for musical chops and an unwavering belief in the core tenets of the Zombi philosophy. Namely: analogue synths trounce their digital scions hands down, and a rhythm section which eats, breathes and shits as one is fundamental rather than incidental.

Arriving four years after Escape Velocity, in which Zombi bypassed the modus operandi established over the course of its predecessors in favour of an altogether less dynamic fusion of colossal synth pads and beats, Shape Shift is an epically vivid rebirth, riding those twin thermals with the majesty and poise of a golden eagle. The synthesisers are so vast they generate their own gravity while Paterra's drumming is galactic in scale, locking in with the bass, whether four-stringed or played on keyboard, precisely and potently. Only on 'Night Rhythms', the 18-minute closer on Surface To Air, have Moore and Paterra created anything to rival the highlights of Shape Shift.

Ever the prog fans, Zombi have never been shy of binding their muscular tracks in an overarching concept - ever since they named the seven cuts comprising their 2004 debut Cosmos after constellations the space theme has persisted - and Shape Shift continues the astronomical custom.

Ergo the opening 'Pillars Of The Dawn', its title borrowing as per Zombi's prog forebears Pink Floyd and Genesis from Arthur C Clarke's novel Childhood's End, a celestial mash of syncopation, jittery synth motifs and alien choirs. Ergo too 'Mission Creep', a restless groove underpinned by a heavily modulated bassline and crowned with an obstinate keyboard arpeggio, which steps aside to allow the cosmic waltz of 'Interstellar Package' to flood the stereo picture before, at the three-minute mark, the beat rectifies itself and an elegiac chord progression plays out on the fattest synth pad this side of Jean Michel Jarre.

Even when the titles are more esoteric than transparent, as on the near 15-minute closer 'Siberia II', images of interplanetary travel and the unforgiving airlessness of what lies beyond Earth's exosphere are hard to dispel from the mind. Here, a monolithic layer of whooshing filter-swept synthesiser and pulsing sequenced bass is joined after three minutes by a doggedly dour beat soon punctuated by the incessant clanging of the bell of Paterra's ride cymbal. The spiralling mass ploughs forth numbly like a spaceship on a mission into the furthest reaches of the universe, its occupants cryogenically suspended as days, months and years pass, time itself rendered meaningless. There are no melodies, no diversions, no let-ups.

All of which might suggest that Shape Shift lacks humour. Yet for all its geeky fascinations this is a record that wears a smile — admittedly a fairly thin one — and takes its themes with a pinch of salt. Besides, like its musical cousin progressive rock, science-fiction enjoys enduring popularity despite the best efforts of its naysayers. And while space rock might never be considered high art, when it begets nine tracks as riveting and white-hot as those on Shape Shift there's little you can do but submit. Such is the reward to be had from the perseverance of others.