FFS - 'FFS' - 2015 Album Review

‘FFS’ by FFS – Not some kind of monster

Sparks have been going since 1971, Franz Ferdinand surfaced in 2001. Sparks have twenty-two albums under their belt. Franz Ferdinand reached five. Sparks is a duo. Franz Ferdinand is a quartet. And the six of them now form one band, FFS, which just launched a captivating eponymous debut album.

The Franz-Sparks alliance dates back to 2004, when Ferdinand was dominating the airwaves with Take Me Out. The Mael brothers thought it was a cool song and wanted to meet the Glaswegians in their hometown LA. A demo for the song Piss Off stems from that period, but didn’t come to fruition back then. So there it lay … an auspicious ditty, gathering dust. Until the guys bumped into each other in downtown San Francisco.

Franz Ferdinand - Take Me Out

“Take us out, Ron and Russell!” – Franz Ferdinand

Born out of that lucky encounter, ‘FFS’ sounds equally spontaneous. Which is a small miracle, given the fact that it must be extremely hard to drag two seasoned bands away from their routines. The danger of creating some kind of monster is real. Especially when – the initial romance waned – both bands realize that this town ain’t big enough after all.

Dramatic falsetto vs. deadpan delivery

Collaborations Don’t Work – an update of Bohemian Rhapsody? – speaks volumes: sooner or later mutual respect will make way for frustration and envy. A fear brilliantly transmitted by the quarrelling between Russell Mael (S) and Alex Kapranos (FF):

S: I don’t need your patronizing
FF: I don’t need your agonizing
S: I don’t need your navelgazing
FF: I don’t get your way or phrasing

Rest assured: Sparks and Franz Ferdinand did not fall into that trap. Both sporting a very distinctive style, they give each other plenty of room to move and breathe. Indeed, what’s making the FFS sound so potent, is the clash of musical contrasts: Ron Mael’s dramatic piano gestures and orchestral leanings against Franz Ferdinand’s guitar crunch, his brother Russell’s falsetto against Kapranos’ deadpan vocal delivery.

Transatlantic humour

Dictator’s Son sees Ron and Russell hopping over a light melody, while heavy guitars vainly try to tone them down. An abundance of great, subtly incorporated ideas aside, most songs are pretty straightforward. Glued together by transatlantic humour and a mildly sardonic tone – what else did you expect?

Sparks - 'Kimono My House' (1974)

“Kimono our house, Franz” – Sparks

Call Girl revolves around wordplay, while Police Encounters hysterically revolves around the wife of a police officer. The Man Without A Tan is about the threat imposed by an all too popular new kid in town, and Piss Off is a Pythonesque way of saying goodbye.

A nod and a wink

To thicken the intellectually amusing ambience, FFS indulges in clever winks to popular culture and auto-reference. For instance on the Japanese-titled So Desu Ne, which mentions both Hello Kitty and ‘kimono’ – a clear nod to Sparks’ 1974 breakthrough album ‘Kimono My House’ (1974). Indeed, the one that made a lasting impression on a teenage Morrissey.

Driven by tiresome cadences, Save Me From Myself and The Power Couple are slightly less memorable. But overall, ‘FFS’ is a surprisingly coherent album. Hopefully inspiring more bands to put their heads together.

‘Juggernaut’ by zZz – Dealing exzZzitement!

For a decade now, zZz has been building excitement in home country Holland, and far beyond. Their third LP is a self-proclaimed ‘Juggernaut’. An apt title, especially if you flip to side two.

Playing just keys and drums, zZz is quite an usual sight: Daan Schinkel pounding away on his organ and synths, and Bjorn Ottenheim keeping a sturdy beat and singing fuzzed-out lines. Recorded on a converted houseboat and launched in 2005, debut album ‘The Sound of zZz’ contained one of my favourite Dutch rock songs … ever: Lucy.

Not in it for a Pulitzer

Let’s cut to the chase: if you’re into deep or poetic lyrics, ‘Juggernaut’ is not for you. But it’s clear zZz is not after a Pulitzer Prize. They deal excitement. They want your heart to bounce out of your chest and your eardrums to keep trembling when the music’s over.

zZz’s style may be wild, but it’s not flat. Which is largely down to Schinkel’s swirling keyboards.

Hawkwind! Punk! Krautrock!

The first thing that hits me on album-opening track Blood, is Ottenheim’s vocal eruption and the immediate reaction of drums and synths. It makes me think of Silver Machine, an unlikely hit for Hawkwind in 1972. Did anyone mention the word juggernaut?

Hawkwind - Silver Machine (1972)

Hawkwind – Silver Machine (1972): an inspiration for zZz?

zZz’s style may be wild, but it’s not flat. Which is largely down to Schinkel’s swirling keyboards. ‘Juggernaut’ rolls on in a variety of moods: punky (My Girl), slow-burning (Dead End), moving (Doze) and voiceless (Red Beat). The latter a pastische of late seventies, drum computer-fed electronic music. It sounds as if the album’s end is near, but the real Juggernaut is yet to come: a sidelong, trance-inducing slice of neokraut.

Surfing the waves of intensity

Considering the shorter songs on ‘Juggernaut’ are not too bizarre, the title track signals a radical change of direction. Luckily, the piece does not stumble forward aimlessly: its teasing intro and subtle waves of intensity are arresting enough to keep you from feeling completely numb.

A bit of a mixed bag, ‘Juggernaut’ is a more than decent record – and a worthy addition to the discography of excellent Dutch rock label Excelsior Records. It’s striking how zZz carves out its own path. In these times of hot air, ‘Juggernaut’ is refreshingly welcome.

Stand-out track:

This review is based on a piece I wrote for daMusic.be in Dutch.