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Some bands go unappreciated in their time becoming sort of cult favorites as opposed to what their talent might deserve. Sometimes there are extenuating circumstances, or a particular market or perhaps "the world simple wasn't ready for their music" as is so often the case. With Billy Corgan's seemingly "doomed from the start" side project, between solo career and the Smashing Pumpkins, it seems to be more the shadow of his previous band that led so many to dismiss the group on first listen.
Zwan is/was certainly a departure from the Smashing Pumpkins in many ways (if not every way) there is still some great songs on their only release, and glimpses at more great songs that were debuted live. That is, if you can get past the fact that the band was NOT the Smashing Pumpkins. Although press releases and statements from around the bands disintegration definitely show major rifts between just about everyone in the group but Corgan and Jimmy Chamberlain, Zwan made some great music. In a different time where it's members could have overcome their differences, and they weren't so overshadowed by the Smashing Pumpkins, I think this band could have been huge.
With only one album, there isn't too much music to look at from Zwan, but their style was obvious, as is why some Pumpkins fans decided to turn away. Although there are thick guitars and soaring leads, their music is distinctly lighthearted, "love infused" rock and roll... it's even happy. That's not saying that the Smashing Pumpkins didn't have their fun and happy moments, but they were always a darker band, more epic and grand, beyond just good fun rock and roll into something far more "artistic" and deep. Zwan is almost the complete opposite where the songs seem deceptively simple, possessing a sort of hidden artistic style, and I think that's where they were so misunderstood.
Songs like "Honestly", the band's first single, do sound, on first listen, like straight forward pop/rock tracks. It's catchy, fun, upbeat with a sing along chorus, surely enough to make any hardcore Pumpkins fan cringe and ask what Corgan was on when he wrote it, but that's an overly shallow view. Within the intertwining guitar leads, melody and layered parts lurks a very subtle, perhaps even too subtle, progressive rock depth, complex music, crafted parts and poetic lyrics to set the mood. This depth continues throughout the entire album with songs like "Lyric", "Settle Down" and "Declarations of Faith", each with their layered guitar lines, progressive leads and grounded, but poetic lyrics. I'm especially fond of "Endless Summer". A song that's got a great guitar riff and chorus amongst it's vocals and matching the guitar lead.
These songs have a different kind of excitement than some of the songs from Smashing Pumpkins and other bands have. It's more contained and restrained, put into a soaring, uplifting feel, and especially melody, as opposed to massive guitar riffs and epic grandeur. Take a look at the melodic style of songs like, "El Sol" and "Yeah" both in their multiple guitar lines and vocals; the more swaggering enormity of "Baby, Lets Rock", with it's huge riffs, more pulled back vocals and massively twisting guitar leads; or the progressive feel of "Ride a Black Swan" that swells as the layers build behind it's poetic imagery. They all seem to creating a expansive sonic landscape with lots going on that isn't over the top, but more subdued and melody rich.
It's as if a large amount of musicality, sound and intermingling melodies were all woven together to create something that has incredible sonic depth, but also something that at face value is catchy, fun, uplifting and pop friendly. I think this is the main place where Zwan has been misunderstood. The Pumpkins were always far more open with their artistic depth, while this restrained and more subtle depth went overlooked and caused the band to be dismissed as a drastic departure. They definitely were a departure, but I wouldn't call it drastic as both bands have tremendous depth sonically, but in different flavors.
Of course not everything was as subtle from Zwan. There was the dual songs "Jesus I/Mary Star of the Sea" that are lyrically cryptic, expansive in their textures, and epic in progression. The first has guitar layers build progressively into a bit of a religious, rock and roll explosion before descending into a almost wildly progressive guitar lead that sends the song through a series of shifting musical moods, the whole time underpinned by the slowing rhythm. They take that slower rhythm and progress right into the second song, which takes it and soars right into massive guitars again. Each on it's own is huge and great bit of complex,but again, subtle progressive rock. Together they make for a epic complete work where one just seems to float into the next with related, but different musical ideas.
I once read that originally, there were supposed to be multiple incarnations of the Zwan project, including a purely acoustic one and there are some great acoustic tracks on the album as well. "Come With Me" probably shows the most interesting side of the band with it's harmonica and simple acoustic strumming. It's almost like an entirely different band, one more out of the 60s era than the alternative one. It serves as a great pulled back coda to the album as well, as it could have easily ended with the massive "Jesus I/Mary Star of the Sea". There's also the sweet, more upbeat "Heartsong", and the far more haunting "Of a Broken Heart", both of which show a band that is not only deep into their own contained version of progressive rock, but also has a great lighter side. The latter is also a bit bluesy and dark, which adds another level of interest as well.
Together all these songs make for one heck of an album in my opinion, one I can listen to in it's entirety without even a second thought. It's an uplifting, generally happy, and overall very emotional album; a great bit of progressive rock in my mind, although definitely quite different than just about any other album I would also give that label. It is pretty ironic to think about actually... the band that made this music and seemed to have such great chemistry would disintegrate in such a bitter way (there were some pretty nasty things said on all fronts)... Especially because there were so many other songs that were debuted live, not on the album that also sounded great.
These songs are a little difficult to find a decent recording of, but if you can, make sure to check out "Spilled Milk"; just a great hard driving rock song with a little Black Sabbath in it's riff to my ears. I hope Billy Corgan chooses to rerecord this one with the new Smashing Pumpkins eventually as I think it's an amazing song.
Maybe I'm a little biased as a long time Billy Corgan fan, (Pumpkins or otherwise) in the way I think Zwan has been overlooked and misunderstood by some people. Listening to the music though, both from a superficial and a deep intellectual way, I can't help but think that in another life this band would have been huge... maybe not quite Smashing Pumpkins huge, but certain close. Few bands have so much musical depth with so many interwoven melody lines without succumbing completely to free form expression and becoming less than "pop friendly". It takes a different kind of artistic creativity to create depth in such a restrained fashion. I think Zwan is/was a great musical representation of that idea and a great blend between it and pop friendly rock and roll.
I don't know if I'd say it's a shame that Zwan broke up. In one way it is because they were making some great music, but in another it seems like they would have self destructed eventually no matter what. I hear a lot of their influence in the new Smashing Pumpkins, something that really helped their new album grow into one I really like after somewhat disappointing first impressions. I do wish we had album versions of some of the songs they were playing live, because the nearly bootleg quality live recordings are a glimpse at some great music... but to my knowledge that's all there is.
If this is your first look at the ill-fated Zwan project, check out their album, Mary Star of the Sea, and have a couple of listens through... it takes more than one to really understand how deep some of this music is. If you're familiar with Zwan but could just never get into it for whatever reason, maybe take another listen as there is a lot more to their music than face value. And if you're already a fan, well then you probably already know what I'm talking about...