...widely considered one of their most seminal albums...
Jon Lusk 2007
This Minneapolis-based three-piece band named themselves after a Danish board game and were one of the leading American alternative rock groups of the mid-1980s. They were driven by Grant Hart’s hyperactive drum stutter and the twin vocal/song writing attack of Hart and guitar distorter par excellence Bob Mould – a partnership that would eventually unravel by 1988. Even in 1984, when this 70-minute double album was released, the sound of two rather different artistic visions was emerging. Mould’s angrily roared, manic songs dominate the set, contrasting with the Hart’s more poppy and conventional output.
Zen Arcade is widely considered one of their most seminal albums, although its length and almost relentlessly scorched-earth sound make listening to it all at once a slightly daunting prospect. The sleeve notes proudly declare that ‘everything on the record is first take’ except for two songs, and that there were only two out-takes, but like almost every double album that’s ever been made, this one could have done with harsher pruning.
That said, there are plenty of gems among its 23 tracks. It’s ostensibly a concept album about a teenager leaving home, having rejected his parents or been rejected by them. Even so, there’s room for the occasional flash of black humour in the lyrics, faithfully reproduced in the CD booklet. "Never Talking To You Again" is a rare acoustic interlude and despite their general preference for short, hard, fast songs, the band’s unwillingness to be pigeon-holed is apparent in a surprising diversity influences on show, from The Buzzcocks ("The Biggest Lie") to Chuck Berry ("Hare Krishna"), with the occasional poodle rock dalliance ("Indecision Time" and "Masochism World") and hints of psychedelia in several sequences of backwards music. Most notable of these is the instrumental "Dreams Reoccurring", an excerpt from the ferociously inventive 14-minute closer "Reoccurring Dreams".
At times the lo-fi production values make you yearn for some of Hüsker Dü’s later, more ear-friendly material (the subsequent New Day Rising album is an accessible starting point) or the comparatively lush melodicism of Mould’s 1990s band Sugar. There’s no such tooth-rot here.