Everything about Sleeper Coach, the new full-length CD from the oddly-titled band Zelienople, sounds a bit unnerving. From the murky and muddled recording technique, to the brooding vocals, to the dark mood and strange sounds, Sleeper Coach soothes the soul and quiets the heart while provoking images of foreboding and even terror. Recorded on an outdated 1/2″ 8-track tape machine and packaged simply with no credits or lyrics, Sleeper Coach is the sound of a band pursuing an eccentric ideal of musical creativity…
And, what do you know, this strange approach works! The first thing that strikes the listener in hearing Zelienople’s music is the recording quality. The music sounds gloomy and muddy, as guitar drones blend into wobbling bass lines and muted vocals. One might be tempted to think that perhaps recording budget restraints have hindered this band from truly sharing their brand of shoegaze-psychedelia. Yet, after a few listens, the listener comes to realize that this unique sound is NOT a mistake, but rather the result of an intentional effort to cause the music to sound as if it originates from the long-lost tapes of a dark 1970’s band. And, in the end, the technique perfectly supports the slow-moving and suffocating songs of Zelienople, adding to their sense of dimension and mystery.
Sleeper Coach opens with faded-in drones that meld into a loosely structured (yet darkly melodic) song. Right off the bat, the listener is treated to Zelienople’s propensity towards free-form guitar work, simple percussion, and use of bizarre accent-sounds. The vocals, delivered by lead singer Matt Christensen, sound reminiscent of Jeff Cloud, or a less polished Graham Sutton, and fit perfectly into the dark and subtly-evolving music. Just when “Sea Bastards” fades towards a satisfying end, the eternally foreboding “Softkiller” emerges with its pulsating bass line. The sense of tension in this song is heightened by its faint guitar work and vocal melody. “Softkiller” is definitely a highlight of Sleeper Coach, and demonstrates Zelienople’s talent for combining songwriting with experimental sound. The more stripped-back “Dr. Brilliant” follows, combining fluid guitar work with Christensen’s understated vocals. “Dr. Brilliant” has a spontaneous feel to it, perhaps due to the lack of percussion and plasticity of the guitar lines. Vocals then retreat from the picture for a wide swath of Sleeper Coach. “Underneath” is an instrumental track built on echoing guitars and gentle soundscapes, providing a brief respite from the darker-themed material on the CD. “Alleyville” is another instrumental song, though fitted with a more edgy mood due to the use of strange noises infused throughout the song. After a short droney introduction, “Corner Lot” (another personal favourite) submerges the listener into a thick haze of plodding tribal sounding percussion, strange noise, and repetitive bass lines. Vocals finally reappear, though very faintly, on the airy “Don’t Be Lonely”, as Christensen sings falsetto over a bed of interwoven and blended guitar parts. Following the largely experimental drones of “Curtains”, the almost folk-sounding “Ship That Goes Down” appears, featuring a recognizable melody, light percussive sounds (is it drums or the sound of fingers moving over guitar frets making that sound?) and a varied approach to guitar parts a la Jessica Bailiff. Finally, the Charity Empressa-esque “Fortune” finishes off Sleeper Coach with instrumental drones and subtle accents dominating the soundscape, allowing only a few bars of vocals to surface. Taking in its totality, Sleeper Coach plunges the listener into a psychedelic atmosphere of melody coated in reverb and blanketed by noise.
Zelienople will appeal not only to fans of more recent atmospheric-shoegaze music (Yume Bitsu, Charity Empressa, and Flying Saucer Attack, come to mind), but also to fans of darker slowcore music and classic 70’s psychedelia. By employing a rampant sense of experimentalism coupled with emotional restraint and a keen ear for solid melody, Zelienople has crafted a unique-sounding CD that washes over the listener in an undeniable way.