When the band Zula gets compared to other groups, it’s often in terms of Frankensteinian mashups: Battles mixed with Radiohead with a touch of Coldplay plus some Grizzly Bear. At a certain point, a list of comparisons begins to point more towards what a band doesn’t sound like than what it does. In Zula’s case, that is most music.
In the New York–based band’s new EP, 6 Passes, Zula does what they’ve done best in last year's full-length, Grasshopper, and previous EPs: craft a unique and kaleidoscopic breed of psychedelic pop that is simultaneously abstract and plugged in. Their new album is both a response to the current time we live in and an escape from it. Songs like the opener, “Anything For You,” could be the anthem of the news this week (or exactly a year ago—think Access Hollywood—or many times before that). According to Henry Terepka, one of the two cousins who founded the band, “The lyrics were inspired by white-male domination as embodied, experienced, and witnessed in private homes, on college campuses, and in seats of power.” Zula conveys their message cleverly, though, wrapping it up in coded lyrics over shimmering, dense instrumental voices and a crisp beat, saving the strongest words for the refrain: “She doesn’t have to be anything for you.”
If other songs contain heavy ideas, they similarly abstract them, both in the lyrics and sonically. “Unmistakable,” led by Noga Shefi playing a lively bassline and uptempo percussion, lands somewhere between danceable-yet-strange disco and funk; “Try It” is warm, funky, and soulful; the sax in “City World” lends the song the exuberant energy of jazz; “All Except” escalates with each dynamic spurt of added instruments; and “Breathe In” builds an urgent march of groovy guitar, bouncing bass, and tight vocal harmonies. All of 6 Passes has a propulsive movement, driving forward crisply and clearly despite its complicated arrangements.
Coexisting with the danceable grooves and dynamic movement, though, is a sense of anxiety. Sometimes Zula incites uneasiness through haunting repetition—such as the lingering single chord at the center of “City World” or the guitar riff throughout “Breathe In”; other times, they do it by thwarting expectations, as in the uneven measures in “City World,” the dark turn on the bridge in “Unmistakable,” and the surprising bursts of Hannah Epperson's violin on “Anything For You.” While the lyrics take some time to decipher, they do suggest disquiet—apparent, among other places, in the repetition of the instruction to “breathe in,” both in the song of that title and in “Try It.”
In 6 Passes, Zula is equal parts cathartic, nervous, confounding, captivating, thought-provoking, and dance-inducing. And in the midst of balancing such a complicated formula, they’ve managed to land in a rare sweet spot, in which the listener will gain equal satisfaction from spending a little time and energy on the music as they will from spending a lot.