Human Zoo Review: Little Experiments That Go A Long Way

No game this week, sorry. Any gaming I would have done got subsumed by E3. And by the time E3 was done, I was just too wrapped up in other things to pick up from where I left off. Like Tavern Brawls. My God. So absurd. But we’ll wrap around to Tavern Brawls [in Hearthstone] once there are more of those.

A tamer with a whip, making weird looking animals of all persuasions float around on the right hand side of the cover?  Sounds right for Electric Six.
Human Zoo’s front cover – this trippiness is exactly right for Electric Six

This isn’t the first Electric Six album. In fact, for a few years, there, Electric Six had been putting out roughly an album a year. They took a break, and started up again somewhere in 2012 and this particular album is their latest.

If you’ve never listened to an Electric Six album, the important thing to understand is that the lyrics of the songs generally make absurdist sense. That is, sometimes, there’s a narrative that you can piece together, and sometimes, this means that the song actually does “mean something” but it can veer wildly from “You’re flying on Lucifer Airlines, relax and enjoy the flight into Hell” to songs about “not really being the life of the party, but trying anyway.”

The second important thing to understand about Electric Six is that they are ridiculously good at making music. On Zodiac [a few albums ago] they somehow ran a bastardized “Baker Street” into a near-impression of “The Great Gig In The Sky.” These little nuggets were to be found in the incredible song “Doom and Gloom and Doom and Gloom.” The scary thing? It all flows so well together that it’s difficult to understand how Dick Valentine and company made all these logical leaps.

So, here’s Human Zoo. By now, you’d think that they would have run out of things to write crazy lyrics about. Or might have run out of musical steam. And for some fans, that most certainly has happened. Let’s be clear: Electric Six aren’t really ever going to move out of the basement of crazy Party Rock that they’ve been settled in since their first album. No. Instead, what’s going to happen is that they’re going to do little experiments on each album and those experiments will go on to inform the next album down the line.

Here, they take some cues from their ode to synthesizers [“Heartbeats and Brainwaves” – another amazing album] and run those sensibilities into their more modern and more rock oriented output [“Kill,” “Flashy” and the like.] – what this means is that there’s always some kind of crunchy guitar going on in most of the songs – and on top of this, we get to hear some interesting synthesizer flourishes.

This intent is made clear right from the opener, “Karate Lips,” with its bombastic and stompy guitar riff that has a little shimmer of keyboard strewn all along the top of the song. As far as openers go, this one sets the tone nicely for the rest of the record. Electric Six are here to rock. And they’re here to do it in heavy style.

There are a handful of miss-steps when experiments go awry. On paper, the idea of “Gun Rights” must have seemed appealing: make a goofy sounding pastiche that sounds not-at-all Electric Six and dress it up in a Mexican-seeming sound scape and see what comes out, but it doesn’t quite work. There’s too much repetition of the phrase “you took away my rights, my gun rights” which wears thin pretty quickly – there’s most certainly not enough of the spoken word mid-section, which goes some way to redeeming the song.

Not much crazy stuff happening here, but man, those song names!
Human Zoo’s surprisingly austere back cover

The same is arguably true of “I’ve Seen Rio In Flames.” It’s not a bad song, but it’s an odd choice for the middle of the record. In this sense, it’s an experiment in pacing and all it does is cause the flow of the album to come to a sudden [and rather abrupt halt] mid-way through the proceedings. This is an especially bizarre experiment when given “Electric Six Canon.” Essentially, each disk ends in a slow, less energetic song, and sticking “I’ve Seen Rio In Flames” at this point makes you suddenly pause and go, “wait, that’s it?”   Particularly if you’re an Electric Six fan and you have some idea of what to expect.

But other experiments, I’m pleased to say, work quite well. There’s an almost-rap-inspired song in “(Who The Hell Just) Call My Phone” – again, much like with “Gun Rights” it really shouldn’t work. That’s not the sort of band Electric Six is, but against all odds, it re-ignites the album and gets it stomping along again quite nicely after the lull of “Rio.”

These little ideas – which could have destroyed the album – make it all the more interesting and I appreciate that Electric Six are – in their own, subtle way, moving their sound forward in a slow, deliberate sort of manner.

Should you buy this album? This is tricky. For a non-Electric Six fan, I think it would take a certain mindset to appreciate what’s going on here. They definitely are quite talented musicians, but the lack of lyrical sense will probably push some people away. Moreover, if you’re a lapsed Electric Six fan, I’m not sure this is a good place to pick up again. Some songs – the highlights of the album, if you will – are very much in the style of their older music – “Karate Lips,” “It’s Horseshit!,” “Worst Movie Ever,” “Good View Of The Violence” and to a lesser extent “(Who The Hell Just) Call My Phone” will all make lapsed fans quite happy, but they’re going to have to contend with less straightforward songs like “Rio” and “Gun Rights.”

I think the solution is to listen to those two songs, in particular, and gauge your reaction to them and then make a purchasing decision. [of course, this being the modern era, if you’re simply not into those two songs, Amazon will probably happily sell you the album sans those two pieces of music and – of course, you can always skip past them, should you buy the entire disk and they come up.]

All-in-all, I think this is a stellar Electric Six release and I’m curious to see what they do next.