It’s not hard to feel like bands can sometimes go too far, and that’s not in reference to ending up in weird directions that don’t work or making particularly harsh shifts that end up not paying off. Rather, it’s about the bands with a very limited scope to their operations, and yet have somehow developed a habit of rolling out albums every couple of years that rarely deviate or change in any way, positive or negative. That’s the camp that Zebrahead have ended up in; they may have started out well and developing a fusion of rap-rock and pop-punk led to albums like Broadcast To The World in the 2000s turning out particularly well, but lately, the sag has begun to take hold, and their recent material has lacked so much of the spark and dexterity they once called their own to turn into flat pop-punk mush. On top of that, the turnover time and lack of memorability beyond a handful of singles at most has led to Zebrahead being little more than a disposable part of the furniture at this point, an unfortunate realisation that they themselves have done little to combat.
That is, until When Both Sides Suck, We’re All Winners kicks this album off as a pretty clear callback to classic hardcore punk, and it would appear as though Zebrahead have finally found their footing once again. It’s something of a running theme throughout Brain Invaders as well, as Zebrahead take a pretty brisk run through a heavier, more forceful sound as their general canvas that hits watermarks a few rungs higher than a lot of their recent material has. That’s not to oversell this by any means – it’s still a Zebrahead album with all the shortcomings and general transience everyone has come to expect – but Brain Invaders definitely has the entertainment value to make it a worthwhile listen.
And yes, the considerably-sized asterisk that accompanies a statement like that feels almost consistently justified, especially in the more political bent that the band are attempting on here. It’s not as though tracks like We’re Not Alright or Take A Deep Breath (And Go Fuck Yourself) can be expected to really go deep into the issues, and while the greater sense of anger is palpable, the main draw of Ali Tabatabaee’s dextrous rapping remains pretty evident. The intent is arguably more important than how it’s presented (as shown when Do Your Worst and Up In Smoke slide back into goofier ska-punk territory), and while that’s an improvement in terms of longevity, a factor that Zebrahead have been struggling with for a while now, there’s still a sense of brevity that can be difficult to shake off, and ultimately impedes this album from being better than it is.
That’s a shame as well, especially when Brain Invaders has arguably the most consistently clear punk focus that Zebrahead have had in a long time, enough to really hit some high points as far as energy and verve goes. Sure, All My Friends Are Nobodies is still a rather blatant riff on the customarily harder, more serious material of their past albums, but the classic skate-punk vibes of You Don’t Know Anything About Me and Party On The Dancefloor turn clear plays for nostalgia into something sharp and vibrant, and Ichi, Ni, San, Shi makes a surprisingly well-done pivot into straight-up hardcore. Along with slightly darker, more muted production like on Better Living Through Chemistry, Brain Invaders’ harder edges ultimately prove to be something of a saving grace when it comes giving this band slightly more gas in the tank to keep going, and even though sunnier ska- and pop-punk tracks like Chasing The Sun do still make an appearance, the fact that they’re the minority on the whole is an encouraging sign that Zebrahead are finally reaching a point where they know what they’re best at.
That might sound overly condescending, but for an album where Zebrahead are more stable and likable than they really have been in years, making evaluations like that is ultimately a good thing, if only to isolate where the improvements are. Here, they might only be slight in the context of the whole album, but they’re noticeable all the same, especially if Zebrahead are willing to continue to embrace their punkier edge for something equally or more enjoyable. Thus, while it can largely be summarised that Brain Invaders is somewhat transitional, moving into choppier sonic waters but more tentatively, particularly in the writing, the fact that it’s more enjoyable and memorable than this band have been for a while has plenty of potential going forward.
For fans of: Sum 41, Goldfinger, The Ataris
Words by Luke Nuttall
‘Brain Invaders’ by Zebrahead is released on 8th March on MFZB Records.