A longtime critical favorite, The Zombies have built a sterling reputation upon a number of strengths. Colin Blunstone’s vocals have been central to the group’s appeal, and the musicianship – led by the peerless keyboard work of Rod Argent – has at its core a sensibility that draws from classical and jazz. And those influences make themselves known in the most unpretentious way; no easy needle to thread, that.
Most “legacy” artists – bands that created their best-loved and highest-profile work many decades ago – have long since moved into the human jukebox stage of their careers. And that’s their right: they’ve earned the privilege of coasting on their reputations, wheeling out the hits live in concert to appreciative audiences, many of whom didn’t have the opportunity to see the bands in their heyday. Especially when it’s done tastefully and professionally, there’s no shame I nthat approach.
But that’s not the chosen path for The Zombies. While their biggest hits came in 1964-65 and ‘69, and while the group embarked upon two extended periods of inactivity, in the 21st century the band has uniquely sought to have it both ways: live concerts (and concert audio/audiovisual recordings that serve up the classics, and studio releases that don’t tread water or engage in musical tail-chasing. And on all scores, they’ve succeeded. 2011’s Breathe Out, Breathe In was a solid collection, and the aptly-titled Still Got That Hunger from 2015 was better still. Both albums built on the style that earned The Zombies their acclaim, but both deftly avoided (a) sounding like retreads or (b) needlessly “updating” the band’s sound in ways that might serve the moment but would soon pass their self life.
Now in 2023 comes Different Game. And as Argent explains in a brief liner note, the album was made during (or more accurately right before and after) the depths of the pandemic. But logistical challenges aside, Different Game doesn’t wallow in angst. Unlike many of their so-called peers, Argent and Blunstone (and their band mates) still have something to say, both musically and lyrically. So whether they’re crafting modern-day baroque pop (the title track, full of lovely string arrangements) or leaning into their jazzier inclinations (the pop-fusion er, fusion of “Dropped, Reeling and Stupid”), the results are inviting.
And while the close-harmony a cappella introduction of “Rediscover” will doubtless make listeners think of the Beach Boys, at its heart, the song sounds like nobody but The Zombies. The melody has faint hints of some of the finest moments on Odessey and Oracle, but – again – not in a way that feels at all like self-theft. And the song’s brief organ solo has a wonderful gospel feel.
Argent uses “real” keyboards throughout: Rhodes, Wurlitzer, Hammond and more – and that genuineness reinforces that character of the music. Superbly tasteful support from the band’s other three members – guitarist Tom Toomey, bassist Søren Koch and drummer Steve Rodford (son of dear departed bassist Jim Rodford – is the icing on the cake. Blunstone has always been an excellent balladeer; his conveys the emotion inherent in the music and words. And while other artists change the keys of their classics to accommodate aging vocal cords, Blunstone’s vocal instrument remains a thing of beauty and power.
While nothing on Different Game is likely to eclipse “She’s Not there” or “Time of the Season” in fans’ lists of Zombies favorites, the new songs are fine additions to the group’s catalog. From the spirited and rocking “Merry-Go-Round” to the 10cc-flavored “Love You While I Can” to the refined baroque-fest of “I Want to Fly,” Different Game delivers the goods yet again. And for those who want something along the lines of their earliest tunes, dig the wonderful and bluesy “Got to Move On.” Sixty-plus(!) years after their start, The Zombies remain a vital songwriting and recording unit. And if you get the opportunity to witness them live, they’re even better.
Postscript #1: Keep an eye on this space for news on the Zombies documentary film Hung Up on a Dream.
Postscript #2: Want to read more about this great group? Here ya go…