Though it actually hasn't been that long, it seems like it's been awhile since Billy Corgan has been up to anything. But last November, he emerged with his first post-SP project, ZWAN, consisting of himself, fellow Pumpkin Jimmy Chamberlain, Matt Sweeny formally from the punk band Slint, and the "mysterious" Skullfisher, who turned out to be Tortoise member and Papa M leader Dave Pajo on bass, until recently being moved to third guitar while A Perfect Circle viola-extraordinaire Paz Lenchantin took over the bass duties. They played on the west coat and mid west for months, until taking a break to write and record Mary Star of the Sea.
Taking the three-guitar method of rock to a modern alternative sound works well for Corgan. Mary Star of the Sea does sound similar to earlier Smashing Pumpkins material, but differs in that one crucial aspect: the music isn't melancholy. It's actually quite positive, tackling subjects that you wouldn't think you'd hear coming from Billy Corgan. The title of the album tells exactly what the overall tone will be: faith and love permeate the songs throughout, subjects that haven't really been in previous Corgan songs. Song titles like "Declarations of Faith," and "Jesus I/Mary Star of the Sea" (a traditional arranged by Corgan), immediately jump out as being unusual choices.
The first track, "Lyric," displays all of this right away; lines like "here comes my faith… a lyric, a time, a crusade, a line…" shows this new band stretching out and taking on something as deep as faith. Love itself, the concept as well as the act, is also the major subject, rather than simply lost or unrequited love. The joy of love, its glorious and wonderful intricacies as well as its overwhelming emotional feeling as "a road without end" is something that's quite refreshing as the songs move along. The first single and fourth track, "Honestly," an upbeat rock-heavy declaration of how wonderful a relationship is. "There's no place that I could be without you," shows how Corgan has changed and grown, along with his fellow bandmates. Jimmy Chamberlain's tricky drumwork shows off his jazz training, accompanied with ripping licks and atmospheric chordwork from Pajo and Sweeney, equal a fantastic blend that creates just great, great music.
"Endless Summer," definitely one the standout tracks, continues with the feeling of love as a streaming sense of emotions. Spending an "endless summer," leaving the past and going off into new worlds and new experiences, gives off quite a refreshing and splendid image to listen to. The solo is great, scaling through tricky yet almost sludgy string playing, and with Corgan stretching his vocal power with his almost-scream at some points just totally makes the song go to that next level, from rock song to an emotionally-backed combo of great music and lyrics. And adding Paz Lenchantin's voice into vocal harmonies is amazing: they work well off each other, and it makes a whole new sound to what may at first seem a bit familiar to the ear.
With the only semi-weak tracks being "Baby Let's Rock!" and "Yeah!", the whole album flows, despite the jump from songs like "El Sol," and "Of a Broken Heart," reflecting the early touring songs played by the band, and "Ride a Black Swan,' and "Heartsong" as the newer and definitely more upbeat songs. The combo "Jesus I/Mary Star of the Sea" also is something different, but yet again, works wonderfully. As two distinctions being merged with a nice almost jam at some points shows the range the band can touch.
This is definitely one of the best records released yet this year. Totally solid and flowing, but stepping up to that next level of actually having that something to back up the mammoth guitar crunch and melodies is something that has been missed. Billy Corgan's familiar vocal wail and soft hushed singing sounds just as good as it did on his previous albums. And the familiar Pumpkins' backbeat not only fits well, but stretches nicely into newer tempos, and with Pajo and Sweeney taking their respective styles along into the mix, along with Paz Lenchantin's vocals and softly distinct bass makes the music shine with a new intensity.
Tom Fraher is a Contributing Writer. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.