Music Review: Zelienople – Hold You Up (Miasmah, March 2020)

Something about this person’s posture communicates this record quite well. Moving through, not quickly or assuredly, feeling and observing the heaviness of our collective situation, but holding together for one another.

There has been so much incredible music in this insane year so far, and a lot of it perfectly soundtracks the times we are living in, despite being produced before we had any idea what our current situation would be. I have found it so difficult to focus in quarantine, that I am just getting to the records I was planning to review before the Covid 19 shit hit the fan (which was, admittedly, already circulating a lot of terrible shit beforehand.) Zelienople’s fifth album and the first released in five years, Hold You Up is the perfect meditation for this particular ongoing, drifting trek through a present which is deeply troubling and a future world which is impossible to predict or discern, which looms gloomily from where we are stuck.

For those who are unfamiliar, every member of this band is a prolific and very talented musician who has released piles of music through various solo projects and under other monikers together or with other collaborators. Mike Weis is my favorite percussionist in the city of Chicago and probably one of the most talented and intuitive improvisers I have ever witnessed. Matt Christensen is an incredible songwriter and musician whose output I perpetually feel bad for not being able to totally keep up with! They were one of the first local bands I discovered upon moving here, and I met them all quickly, through mutual friends. On a very cold night in January, I took CTA with a friend to see a side project with a few members of the band on the bill and others in the audience at the Empty Bottle. We were the only people who showed up besides the other bands on the bill and the band members’ partners, so Matt offered to buy us beer for coming out, to which I said he didn’t have to buy me beer to come to his show. Instead, he gave me a copy of his Coma Gears solo LP and Brian Harding (bassist) gave me some tapes he made. The other bands were quite unpleasant, so I spent a lot of time outside smoking and talking to them about music, and it was the first time in my life men mostly just listened to me talk about music for a long time and seemed to find what I said valuable, knowledgeable, and interesting, and I believe this conversation was pivotal in me valuing my own thoughts about music enough to become a music writer. It also made me feel embraced and invited into the city’s music scene and exposed me to my favorite aspect of the city of Chicago and its music scene specifically: the everyday genius of this place and its participants.

I am writing this in my bath tub, which is a very good place to listen to this record. I didn’t want to stop listening to write, so I just decided to write the review on my phone from the water and in the soundspace of the music. (Listening to soothing and healing music in the bath tub is something I have been doing more seriously since the pandemic hit.) I just got this pure tube stereo amplifier and the glow on the tubes is actually perfect for this music: many embers glowing up the dark of the stereo cabinet. The bath tub is on the other side of my apartment from the stereo, so I have to turn it up and let it drift over to the tub like a comforting fog, which also suits this record quite well.

A big theme on this record is announced in the opening track: “I feel safer taking care of you.” Mutual aid, my people: we actually are all safer if we stick together and help one another survive. It is clear here that we are not ultimately safe, but all of us become safer through our support of others.

The next song is probably my favorite and was very importantly featured after a heavily disco-inflected pop number from Jessie Ware on my spring quarantine mix; the juxtaposition of which continues to please me so much every fucking day in its surprising flow! “Breathe” begins with this wonderful intro that really showcases how this band builds things slowly and softly and intentionally, how much space is allowed in everything they do, how unconventional Weis’ “trap kit” actually is, and it actually immediately slows my breath and makes me pay more attention to my body through the music. I am not good at meditation, so I mostly rely on music to help ground and focus me, and Zelienople are a fucking great band for you to listen to if you also need musical forms of meditation. The closing, repeated question of “what would I do without you?” works to connect us to the people who help us survive after our breath has slowed and we have calmed down enough to remember who we are and what matters to us–after we have calmed down enough to appreciate something again and to allow ourselves to be connected.

The title track is long and roving; its most prominent feature is the very high pitched synth waves like a sort of funereal collective kind of whistling through a dark valley we are all moving through simultaneously but somewhat in isolation…like in parallel subjective universes. The multiverse is universally bleak, but in the chorus of suffering, there is strength.

I pay the most attention to the guitars on “You Have It.” At this point in the record, I feel that I have moved through a lot of emotions and I am now being emboldened in my sense of assuredness of thought and action and intention despite still facing a gloomy world forecast.

“Just an Unkind Time” is an appropriate title for a song that communicates well the transient nature of the current social and political climate. There is a lot of grief here, but a very definite sense that we are moving through and beyond it. Something I have always loved about Zelienople is that they consistently make me go through some difficult emotions, but I always experience some form of processing and release if I am listening deeply and truly. (Is Zelienople Chicago’s premiere therapy band? Can we have socially distanced public therapy sessions feat. LIVE BAND, ZELIENOPLE, at the Pritzker Pavillion, for the uninsured and people who cannot afford insurance premiums in the future?)

I love the way this last song begins with the drum rhythm that is very unique from the rest of the record. It showcases well what I love about the drumming of Mike Weis: entirely unique rhythms that are very meditative and emotionally communicative, like every aspect of this band’s music. The drums are more insistent here, sort of knocking around, and pulsing more quickly–and the guitars make me wanna keep going, even if the overall climate remains that of a lull. I guess what I love the most about Zelienople as a whole is that nothing ever feels excessive or superfluous; every sound has a feeling and a purpose and the space it needs to be in its fullness.

While the total bleakness of our remains to he revealed, this album will most assuredly be on my best of the year list! I am even going to buy it on wax. Please spend some time with it, if you have not already: it is critical quarantine listening.

Listening to these digital files has been fun, but I am, as always, eager to see how flipping this record halfway through impacts how I hear its contents.

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