Tunes From the Crypt

Post-rock duo Zombi make synthesizers sound scary

Interested in hearing dark instrumental rock that makes you feel like Jamie Lee Curtis trapped in a closet and fighting off a knife-wielding Michael Myers with nothing but a flimsy coat hanger? Then you'll get a nasty kick listening to Zombi.

Thundering, apocalyptic tracks like "Surface to Air" belie the fact that only two people are fashioning such a frightening ruckus. And if you're alone in the house when you hear one of Zombi's evil synth melodies tearing its way across a distorted bass line and a menacing drum beat, you may find yourself searching for a knitting needle--just in case.

With a name like Zombi, bassist Steve Moore and drummer A.E. Paterra should be eager to compose a soundtrack to a film directed by George Romero. Instead, the synth-based duo's taste runs more toward the artier end of the cinematic spectrum.

"Let's be honest," admits Moore during a recent phone interview. "We don't want to score exclusively for low-budget horror filmmakers. We want to score for someone like Terrence Malick (The New World, The Thin Red Line). He's got the name and funds necessary to shoot these epic films, movies that are artistic and yet somehow part of the Hollywood establishment."

Of course, listening to Zombi's latest album, Surface to Air, on Relapse Records, one quickly learns just how dark and frightening a minor-chord analog synthesizer riff can sound. Moore takes no offense when music writers characterize his band as coming off like Rush performing chase themes from forgotten John Carpenter flicks.

"I don't think we ever really set out to make music that was in any way scary," says Moore, "but it always comes out dark for some reason. It's an aspect of progressive rock that we always enjoyed--the epic, the dark. One of the main misconceptions about this band is that we're inspired by film images. Actually, we're only inspired by the soundtracks of horror films, not so much the movies themselves."

Zombi has, in fact, already scored a couple of low-budget slashers, Murder-Set-Pieces and Home Sick. It's enough to make fans wonder when they can expect to hear Moore and Paterra pounding out a track or two in a bigger-budget shocker like 28 Days Later.

"We need to get an agent," laughs Moore. "Relapse, to an extent, does some of that work, and tries to get our songs placed in films and TV. The label is wonderful for that reason, but there are other bands on the label who are likely an easier sell."

Speaking of Relapse, does Moore feel that Zombi fits among the label's less-than-subtle, extreme-metal labelmates like Dying Fetus?

"We didn't have that much in common with any bands out there, outside of Relapse," he admits. "The fact that we don't sound like any other band basically means we can tour with anybody."

Even among its prog-rock brethren, Zombi sticks out like a corpse in a rose garden. Ever since prog took a dorkier, lighter, more comic turn with acts like Primus and Mr. Bungle in the '90s, the genre has been difficult to embrace and still look cool doing so. Moore maintains prog had already jumped the shark back in the mid-'80s, when Rush, Tangerine Dream and Yes went decidedly pop.

"In those bands' defense, the technology had changed so dramatically," he says, "forcing them to keep up with the all the changes--so much so that their music lost some of the rawness that initially attracted people like me. Looking back on mid-'80s Rush, the material sounds dated. You can still listen to (the earlier) "Tom Sawyer," though, and it clearly holds up."

Still, what is it about the sound of an analog synthesizer that chills the blood?

"It might be association," says Moore. "Those who know the sound associate it with the films of John Carpenter. Or it's that the sound is so completely alien. If you grew up in the '80s or '90s, you just don't know it, and it stands out as being strange."