Retrospective Sound: Zeitgeist by Smashing Pumpkins

In the first of a regular series of articles, I’m going to be revisiting my record collection and pulling out some albums I’ve not listened to in some time, starting with this much maligned release from 2007.

Zeitgeist

If anyone had asked me in the 90’s what my favourite band was I would not have hesitated with my reply; Smashing Pumpkins. Their double album masterpiece Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness absolutely entranced me and I took it upon myself to collect their back catalogue, including singles (the Pumpkins embraced the concept of the B-side as a way of releasing unused material from their albums meaning collectors absolutely had to get the singles to add those rarities to their playlist). After Mellon Collie, the band started to ebb slightly, with band members coming and going, seemingly at odds with frontman Billy Corgan’s desire to experiment more with their music (the follow up album Adore, a highly experimental electronica infused piece was met with fierce criticism on release but has become a strong favourite of mine over time) led ultimately to the band dissolving in 2000. It seemed definite, the members went their separate ways and formed other projects. The Smashing Pumpkins were gone but they’d left behind a hell of a legacy. So, colour me surprised when Corgan announced in 2005 that he was getting the band back together.

Well, the Smashing Pumpkins that materialised weren’t really the band as they had been. The recording group was made up of Corgan and former drummer Jimmy Chamberlin with guitarist James Iha and bassist D’Arcy Wretzky declining to return. The resulting album, Zeitgeist, released in 2007, clearly demonstrates this fractured band trying to reclaim its roots. It’s an album that generally feels unambitious and lacks both the confidence and the grandiose, sweeping sonic vistas of previous albums. The first half of the album, clearly influenced by early metal such as Black Sabbath and Deep Purple, full of crunching, chugging guitars, has a focus on pure guitar and drums with a constant driving rhythm that means many of the tracks tend to feel very similar until the album hist the slower, more thoughtful, Neverlost. It’s a jarring change to suddenly move to more varied material and makes the album feel more like an uneven collection of ideas rather than a succinct record. The albums low point has to be Bring The Light, a track that overstays its welcome after the fifth or sixth repetition of the line “Bring the Light”. God and Country feels surprisingly unpolished and uneven, another odd addition to the album. Pomp and Circumstances ensures the album fizzles out rather than ending on a high.

There are some strong points, though. Corgan’s vocals are poetic but often nonsensical, keeping with the Pumpkins tradition of mixing whimsy with hard rock. Where many bands will lean to “message” songs, it’s this lightness that keeps the listener going. Song wise, the heavy grooves of Doomsday Clock and 7 Shades of Black are both solid openers and lead single Tarantula is a foot stomping corker. Despite this, it’s easy to see why many fans felt let down by the record that they thought would subvert the stale sounds of the early 2000’s and show some 90’s creativity and variety.

Two years after the release of Zeitgeist, Chamberlin departed the band in what can only be seen as a positive move. Corgan continued performing as Smashing Pumpkins, spending the next few years rediscovering the groups sound. This resulted in the mammoth and unfinished Teargarden by Kaliedyscope experiment which saw a number of freely released tracks hit the internet, followed by the commercial and generally well received Oceania which saw Corgan minting a brand new studio band.

Zeitgeist, however, does remain a black mark and a good example of how to misfire when reforming a popular group.

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