Smash And Grab
Shepherd's Bush Empire, London
WEDNESDAY FEBRUARY 12, 2003
Meet the new Billy, considerably more cheerful than the old Billy. The last time I saw The Smashing Pumpkins was in the chilly gloom of the Dominion Theatre, and they were doing an excellent impersonation of a bunch of people each holding an air ticket for a different destination, It remains to be seen whether Zwan is really just Pumpkins: The Sequel, a smartly-packaged new vehicle for the obsessions and ambitions of Billy Corgan, but at the moment they look fired up and wired up, surfing on the energy of a fine debut album and obviously enjoying each other's company.
When Zwan finally took the Shepherd's Bush stage after keeping the fans itching for action for just long enough, Corgan—black shirt, shaved head with beeswax gleam, combat pants, Stratocaster—gave a brief smile of salutation, then promptly cut straight to the chase by kicking the combo into "Jesus, I", the pomptastic epic which forms the climax of the new Mary Star Of The Sea album. There are two other guitarists in the line-up, former Slint-person David Pajo and Chavez refugee Matt Sweeney, but somehow their guitars are never quite as loud as Billy's, and it's the towering Corgster who hogs centre stage.
It wasn't long before the Corg was into full fret-melting stride, wringing out weighty overdriven phrases which reeked of beads, incense, red light bulbs and 1968, except that Zwan are far too well drilled to allow their search-and-destroy instrumental passages to wander into fruitless self-indulgence. With unerring precision, they segued smartly into "God's Gonna Set This World On Fire", a kind of supercharged revivalist clapalong quite possibly designed to saw the floorboards out from under George Dubya's Bible-belt apocalypse. "God don't want no-part-time soldiers," yowled Billy, and you'd almost swear he'd finally discovered irony. Hallelujah! (in a poptastic kinda way).
If you had to crush Zwan into a soundbite or two, you'd end up with something like "glamadelic grunge with a twist of Zeppelin", or maybe a thousand gallons of Pumpkins doing a fly-past at Mach 7. Certainly it's difficult not to feel that the ghost of Pumpkinland stalks these boards. Original Pumpkins drummer Jimmy Chamberlin is thundering away behind the traps, and female bassist/violinist Paz Lenchantin and part-Filipino guitarist David Pajo complete the line-up like mysterious avatars of D'Arcy and Jimmy Iha. Mind you, you'd never have caught D'Arcy indulging in the hair-tossing, bottom-wiggling, arching-over-backwards posturing of Lenchantin, but maybe she's just making a point of fencing off her own space in boys' town.
No matter. Collectively, this lot could thrash the hide off a charging rhino before it had time to ponder alternative strategies, and there aren't many places they can't go (except for funky ones, since Billy obviously managed to skip class the day they did soul, rap and R&B). There are epic swathes of psi-metal boosted by megaton riffing and ringing guitar counterpoints. There's the fabulous swoosh and surge of "Ride A Black Swan", which seizes a fistful of Foo Fighters power-chord surge and keeps piling on the layers until they build into a chorus of cataclysmic majesty. "For Your Love" was nailed securely to the floor by Chamberlin's laid-back but massively solid beat, while Lenchantin's zooming bass line highlighted the New Order-ish leanings of "Settle Down". They present some fine specimens of poignant-and-introspective too, especially a breathless "Of A Broken Heart" with the classically-trained Lenchantin waxing lachrymose on violin.
Judging by the interview sections on the DVD bundled with the new album, Zwan aren't planning to give much away about their inner lives or creative processes. Luckily, the music tells its own story well enough.