The daunting acoustic passage that opens “Kings and Queens” on Zayre Mountain’s debut, “No Pikers,” seems pulled from some recess of darkened folklore, never meant to be unearthed.
Then, the rock kicks in, with bona fide grit and other-side-of-the-tracks storytelling, turning the song into a gnarled yet melodic gem that says this band will bow to no trend.
“Kings and Queens,” with references to a salacious woman with “wicked eyes and filthy thighs, and everything between,” is just scratching the surface of this band’s ability to convey tangled emotion and threadbare characterization within its music. The Wilkes-Barre five-piece’s sound lands somewhere in the middle of Live’s clenched fist musical awareness and the decidedly Americana voicings of a band like Son Volt, yet at the ready to chameleon-ize its arsenal with everything from reggae (“Sunday”) to Southern soul (“Mary Magdalene”) to ska-infused hard rock (“Night and Day”).
With guitars that can go from Peter Buck-like jangle to Hendrix-ian unison-bend scream on a dime, a rhythm section that bends like rubber with jazz-inspired dexterity, and total feel that squeezes every ounce of life from a lyric, Zayre Mountain is calculated roots music for a new generation.
The album is dotted with highlights that will appeal to many facets of music fan, from the Pearl Jam-on-a-bender punkish punch of “Taste of Freedom,” where vocalist Steve Flannery artfully balances his approach between delicate suggestion and outright insurgence, to “What Do We Do Now?” (featuring Kelly of Katie Kelly and the Charming Beards), a track that could easily have been included on latter-period Collective Soul records. The band’s ease of utility is impressive, seemingly drawing on a multitude of influences, yet not succumbing to any sense of identity crisis – songwriting with a fair amount of musical blood being shed.
Elsewhere, “World’s End” is perhaps the best example of what this band does so well, chasing a nimble tear-ready acoustic intro with a gradual crescendo and buildup into a louder landscape of guitars and choruses – something a band like Sister Hazel has done to great effect for so long. The track, again featuring Kelly in a call-and-response vocal situation with Flannery, looks skyward in its romanticized ideal of “flap those wings and fly away,” eventually ending just as quietly ponderous as it began.
Not since The Badlees’ “River Songs” era has Northeast Pennsylvania seen an outfit so capable of conveying the dark horse psyche of the underdog everyman the way Zayre Mountain does.