Canadian duo The Zolas are kind of like Leonard from The Big Bang Theory: somewhere between a geek and a nerd. Their geeky side – or, to be more accurately, lead singer Zachary Gray’s geeky side – has him relaying his flirtatious, cinematic affairs from younger years, like a girl he admired in “earth and ocean class” on “Strange Girl,” or a former girlfriend who is now famous who he has painted “a hundred times” on “Local Swan.” Their nerdiness, on the other hand, comes from not only their references (Western Asia river systems, dying planets), but also from how they try to execute indie rock/pop songs through the stereotype, and, as you might presume, fumble along the way. After all, geeks and nerds aren’t typically known for being smooth.
They start off well, though, with a trio of solid tracks. “In Heaven” rides some descending minor piano chords before climaxing with an admirably semi-psychedelic guitar solo, ebbing and flowing in a likeable manner between the start and finish. Heck, they pull it off well enough to use a word like “defenestrate” without drawing attention to themselves. Lead single “Knot In My Heart” follows suit, with flickering alarm-buzzing synths helping along a lightly distorted Gray as he peeks through the darker hue with a lighter chorus. Title track “Ancient Mars,” though not quite as impressionable and forceful, is still a pleasant three and half minutes to listen to, inoffensive and simple at best with an unobtrusive guitar melody.
The track also carries a sentiment that seems to sum up the lyrical approach across Ancient Mars. “I want to believe in time travel/ that one day I’ll come back for you/ find you in the campus library aisles,” goes the opening verse, and that romantic fantasist mindset seems to carry on throughout the rest of the record. There’s nothing wrong with sticking to a formula (nor is there anything wrong with geekiness or nerdiness, I might add), but a good portion of Ancient Mars is filled with very mediocre tracks that sound like they were written by stereotypical high-school nerds trying to write rock songs.
The remaining tracks on the album are equally inoffensive, but they don’t have the same half-minded unassuming appeal to help them glide along, and too often there’s one too many head-in-your-hands cheesy lines thrown in. “Strange Girl” tries to fashion a cumbersome guitar riff and a chorus that has nothing more to offer than the empty sentiment, “have I ever told you you’re a strange girl?” while “Local Swan” soon gets boring with it’s almost pathetically lovelorn chorus (“When all your nights are starry blurs/ will you remember me?/ When all your friends are photographers/ will you remember me?) that turns a little stalkerish, which the girl in focus doesn’t seem to mind. Maybe she’s just a strange girl. Main offender is “Observatory,” which hops along with a few twiddly guitar riffs before Gray pipes up – and I wish I was making this up – “Hands in the air, listen to me/ this is a stickup at the observatory.” Again, it’s like someone who’s been established as uncool trying to write cool lyrics.
There’s another strangely telling lyric on the album. “I refuse to reminisce/ needle cracks and tape hiss,” Gray sings on “Local Swan,” which is a fine enough way of expressing one’s desire to move on from the past, but also might speak more about his and bandmate Tom Dobrzanski’s music than he thinks. I don’t know what record the press artist who wrote the blurb about Ancient Mars was listening to, but this is most definitely not an album where “The Zolas write classic pop songs and then fuck them up until the hooks have to fight to get out.” In actual fact, for the most part, Ancient Mars is decisively clean-cut, which is where some of the charm gets lost. Tracks like the aforementioned “In Heaven” and “Knot In My Heart” stand out because they’re not only good songs in themselves, but they have a specific feel to them (the guitar work on “In Heaven,” the textured percussion and light wash of distortion on “Knot In My Heart”).
Closing track “Cold Moon” is probably the most “out-there” thing here, even though it’s lyrical content once again veers on creepy (“I found the stomach to deny/ the urge to look you up online/ don’t want to creep on your profile / but sometimes I still do,” which could’ve been pulled off without sounding uncomfortable if Gray hadn’t spent the record sounding like someone strangely devoid of human contact). Tape hiss almost protrudes above the light guitar strums before the whole thing implodes quietly and turns into an electronic haze with cut-up gasping and reverberating electric piano chords. It’s not the strongest track here, but it is interesting to listen to and engage with. Had they put a few more textures on tracks like “Escape Artist,” they could have saved it from sounding like a Bruno Mars piano ballad that keeps tangling itself up, or made the chunky guitar riff on “Euphrates and Tigris” fit better with the release it tries to execute with each chorus. Ancient Mars may have The Zolas coming off like Leonard at the best of times, but if they keep on down the wrong track, they’ll end up sounding like the embarrassingly flirtatious Howard from The Big Bang Theory instead, and he ended up being shot out aimlessly into space. Actually, that might be perfect for them.