The zombie is an attractive role model. Every quality a modern urbanite covets, the zombie's got. Think of the title companion in Jacques Tourneur's 1943 film I Walked With a Zombie. Stark. Still. Cool. No emotional upset or physical pain gets up his nose. Go ahead, stick a pin in him. He's hangin'.
Several years ago, one of my Weekly colleagues told his shrink he couldn't wait to catch the remake of Night of the Living Dead. The doc found this revealing. “Think about it,” he said. “Why do you need to see every new zombie movie that comes out?” Everyone knows the answer: hero worship.
Right now seems a choice time to be a zombie, the ultimate refugee. Loaded onto the usual menaces of 20th-century existence – isolation, information overload, collapsing political and economic systems – a blanket of hot, humid weather envelops the planet. The whole inhabited world has become New Orleans, or Port-au-Prince, or Sao Paulo, places where walking like a zombie is a matter of survival. Places where voodoo thrives.
Zombie trainees need zombie music. So how do you inject voodoo values into a plugged-in civilization? Direct transfusion doesn't quite cut it. When Ellipsis Arts came out with its Angels in the Mirror: Vodou Music of Haiti CD early this year, my expectations were high. But it was too authentic. What you heard was mostly a bunch of people standing around chanting and clapping their hands, maybe banging on a drum or a can. Hardly magical, not trance-inducing and certainly not transcendent, the music didn't pimp the luxurious numbness we crave. The devotees you heard couldn't afford a harmonica – forget a synthesizer. Possibly, you had to be there to get it. And most of us wouldn't want to be.
There are models for successful hybrid zombie music. Louis Armstrong's 1927 “Wild Man Blues” is anything but wild, swinging so low and slow that it's almost motionless. As Laurence Bergreen notes in his fine new Louis Armstrong: An Extravagant Life (Broadway Books), Satch came by his voodoo aesthetic naturally; his mother introduced him to the religion as a boy after a solemn homage at the tomb of New Orleans voodoo queen Marie Laveau. Gil Evans had the knack as well; the lush stasis of such orchestrations as his 1960 “Where Flamingos Fly” is pure zombie. In the realm of pop, there is no better example than the compressed heat of T. Rex's 1971 “Mambo Sun” – mambo being the designation of a voodoo priestess. And the enervated '60s hits “She's Not There” and “Time of the Season” demonstrate that no group was ever more aptly christened than the Zombies.
Listen to Rob Zombie (RA format)
There are those, however, who would take the name in vain. One listen to Rob Zombie's Hellbilly Deluxe, for instance, and you know the former White Zombie front man's a fraud. Okay, maybe R.Z. really is, as he claims, a demon of some sort – “devil man,” “superbeast,” etc. Benefit of the doubt. But no true zombie has this much energy. The crunching guitars, the roller-coaster synths and the stomping rhythms are about as un-undead as you can get. This Zombie would deserve absolution if the songwriting were stronger, particularly since Scott Humphrey's dense production guarantees rich aural booty. For topnotch zombie, though, check out Humphrey's production on last year's “Find Myself” from Motley Crue's confessional Generation Swine; outside cartoonland and inside the human head, things are way scarier.
Listen to DJ Voodoo (RA format)
A more complicated case is DJ Voodoo, author of the new mixed compilation Voodoo Nation. If you're from New Orleans and you call yourself Voodoo, you'd better deliver, son, and it's clear that the man follows at least one branch of the tradition: not hocus-pocus, but orgiastic dance, a prime example being the classic dare-you-not-to-boogie power rumble of “Everybody Thinks I'm High (And I Am).” Regrettably, there's scant indication that DJ Voodoo aspires to be a zombie, though the undead elements of his music are the most penetrating: the sinking bass in Neurologic's remix of “This Is Fresh,” the watery wails on DJ Apache's remix of “Sun God,” the warehouse heartbeats of the title track. As a dance devil, DJV is only serviceable – as with Rob Zombie, the energy overmasters the creativity, and tracks that start elemental end up too busy. A spot of malaria would do this man a world of good.
Listen to Eliane Elias (RA format)
New Orleans isn't the only mosquito coast appropriate for the breeding of zombie music; Brazil, after all, birthed the bossa nova, Walking Death's golden child. Bossa reached a peak around 1963, as Stan Getz's narcotic tenor sax paired with singer Astrud Gilberto's deadgirl exhalations on “The Girl From Ipanema,” “Corcovado” and other listlessly gorgeous tropical flowers. The 1994 demise of Antonio Carlos Jobim, boss of bossa, has inspired a trickle of tributes, the latest of which comes from singer, pianist and fellow Brazilian Eliane Elias. It's more than respectful; it's a little eerie. True, jazzwoman Elias toys with the vocal rhythm on “One Note Samba” more than Gilberto – but just that much more. Her voice and Michael Brecker's sax are a shade edgier than Astrud's and Stan's – but less edge would be impossible. And master guitarist Oscar Castro-Neves is right there with the silken strumming. If you don't sleep through the whole thing, you're not human. Flawless.
Listen to Soulfly (RA format)
From an entirely different (though related) sector of Brazil's voodoo jungles, Soulfly, the inspiration of ex-Sepultura singer Max Cavalera, turns punk metal into zombie gold. These dudes start with the same elements as Rob Zombie – Cookie Monster vocals, percussively atomized guitars, hard beats – and simmer them down to a gumbo paste. How? Atmosphere. Sensuality. Like on “Soulfly,” which dares to be in 3/4 time; it's got huge booms, sure, but they're swamped in Jackson Bandeira's endless stream of guitar noises – he even squeezes out a wah-wah solo that's positively lovelorn. Roy “Rata” Mayorga's assortment of drums (insistent among the crickety effects of the concluding war stomp, “Karmageddon”) are multitracked here and there all over the album, giving it a depth few metallic projects come close to these days, and forging some crucial cultural links between ancient throb and modern – connections made overt by the intercutting of low-fi tapes from village and forest. The snips of tribal drumming and chanting, in fact, could have come straight off Angels in the Mirror. This stuff has roots and spice in the soup, fire underneath and a lid on top. Soul food. And it's loud.
Listen to Pressure of Speech (RA format)
Pressure. Pressure-cooked. Pressure gonna drop on you. The sense of being in thrall, immobilized, closed in, freed from your freedom, is a major attraction of zombiehood. I don't know exactly what the band name “Pressure of Speech” means, but the phrase inhabits that same conceptual barometric range, and with its second album, 50 Years of Peaces, the techno outfit has nailed the essence of 1998 zombie and turned it into superb art. It all starts with the foot-dragging groans of “UXB,” simultaneously despairing and sexual, like a lustful zombie with a broken ankle dragging himself across a night field to an orgy, insects chirping, a typewriter ticking overhead. Every sound created by sound engineer Micky Mann, light designer Hatch Losey and DJ Stikka has a feeling of oppression, a weight on top of it. Hardly anything is crisp. Even a fairly fast-moving number like “Constant Wind,” with its thick, churning ambiance, is a dance tune for grape stompers; it's exhausting. But this is a soft, comforting exhaustion. You could even finger gentle bossa nova chords to the quick slaps of “Dum Dum,” as alien aircraft swirl above. I hear you, mothership. Take me.
Pressure of Speech guessing game: Where do you think such supreme expositors of lassitude and resignation might hail from? Haiti? Indonesia? Hint: If they have any clear influence more than a decade old, it's probably Manchester's Joy Division. Once industrious, then industrialized, Great Britain, like the rest of us service economies, is now becoming more purely just . . . industrial. It's a zombie world.