The Smashing Pumpkins are back. The legendary rock band, which blossomed like a dark rose in the musical wasteland of the 1990s.
Okay, only frontman Billy Corgan and drummer Jimmy Chamberlin have returned from the original lineup, and the absences can be detected. But their return album "Zeitgeist" is still worthy of epic praise -- dark, passionate hard-rock, written with a darkly poetic sweep. Too bad the extra material isn't so good.
The drums smash, the bass roars like unleashed tornado. "Is everyone afraid?/Is everyone ashamed?/They're running towards their holes to find out/Apocalyptic thieves/Are lost amongst our dead," Corgan drawls, telling us a story of gas masks, Kafka and fear.
It's followed with the roiling rocker "7 Shades of Black," with the level of depression you'd expect ("And without peer/And without fear/I'm without anyone at all!"). Then it pours into a series of blazing hard-rockers -- soaring grimy epics, buzzing and cascading bass rockers, a stripped-down melodic tune, and the soaringly exquisite "Pomp and Circumstances," which is only marred by Corgan singing "la la la la..."
"Zeitgeist" probably won't be gently compared to the Pumpkins' earlier classics, especially since it doesn't have James Iha and D'arcy Wretzy from the original lineup -- valuable talents both. But taken on its own virtues, it's brilliant hard-rock -- epic, dark, and with moments of sheer poetry woven into the stormy music.
If I had a main complaint, it would be that the softer songs are rare here, and that the bass doesn't have that epic quality in some of the songs. But Corgan is blazingly passionate in his playing, layering and building a storm of driving guitar and fuzzy bass. He pushes on the fiery melodies of each song, with Chamberlin smashing the drums beside him. These guys sound kinetic.
And Corgan's nasal voice sneers and drawls through the harder songs, but he can also sound wistful and tender, like when he sings, "that's the way my love is." And he pours plenty of passion into his songs, which seem to balance out between the happy and sad -- on one side, a crumbling, bitter apocalypse, and on the other, "no shadows follow me unsung."
Some of his songs aren't up to par lyrically, like "God and Country." But Corgan spins his weird poetry in other songs, like the the ethereal "Pomp and Circumstance": "Torn, broken and frayed/Oh don't we face/War, sunshine and grace/Oh won't you stay/For a while/We can fail in style..."
The special edition of "Zeitgeist" also comes with a eightyish-page booklet, but to be perfectly honest, the booklet is kind of pointless. It's primarily filled with arty photographs -- Paris Hilton in front of a burgeoning nuclear explosion, a grim reaper on the presidential podium, a Roman soldier, coffins, and quite a few others. They're interesting photos, but not really worth exerting yourself for, and they don't reveal much about the album itself.
The Pumpkins aren't quite all they once were here, but Corgan and Chamberlin are enough to make "Zeitgeist" a brilliant hard-rock album with some vintage flourishes. Just take it for itself, with no comparisons.