Zombies’ Odessey and Oracle

So where to start? The Zombies were in a bit of a bad place in 1967. Odessey and Oracle was the result of frustration. Toiling for years with very little commercial success to speak of and their current recording contract long past expiration, primary songwriters Rod Argent and Chris White sought a new beginning. Set with a new CBS contract and relatively minuscule 1,000-pound budget, as well as access to Abbey Road Studios, the Zombies embarked into an environment without label pressure, meaning no specific deadline for release and more notable, no producer. The Zombies had no illusions coming into the recording sessions; they knew this was the end or just the beginning. One thing was certain, though: Odessey and Oracle would be completely subject to the whim of the artists.

With this in mind, Argent and White went out to create a cohesive album. Up until Odessey and Oracle, the Zombies had released a pair of LPs. These, for the most part, were collections of singles rather than actual albums. Through those releases the Zombies did manage to invent a distinctive sound, a sound which would ultimately be expanded upon under Odessey and Oracle. The cause of the distinctive sound was the fact that the Zombies were classically trained musicians, an image which perhaps did worse than good. Often, the Zombies came off as studious squares compared to more rebellious acts. Either way, the Zombies’ musical background led to intricate songs that perhaps were beyond the scope of the popular rock audience. Spatters of sudden tempo and key changes, Argent’s raging organ work and baroque composition filled the band’s singles. All of these songs are really pretty easily accessible but also have a distinct sound when compared to the work of peers. The Zombies also brought interesting musical influences such as jazz undertones and blue-eyed soul, further separating them from R&B-based bands of the time. So while the Zombies are considered part of the then-burgeoning psychedelic era, aside from the vocal harmonies, arguably they had more in common with the church organist and chorale rather than the typical psychedelic band.

Perhaps purposely distancing themselves from equals, Odessey and Oracle finds the Zombies in an interesting place. Lyrically, the band had begun to mature from routine “about a girl” topics. While a fair share of songs on Odessey could be considered romantic songs, the direction the lyrics came from was much more varied. The album opener, “Care of Cell 44” is the perfect example. The Argent-penned song, originally titled “Prison Song” and later, “Care of Cell 69,” finds a guy dreaming about his girl’s release from prison, “hoping she’s ok’ and waiting to “get to know her for a second time.” Not only does the story have a thematic twist, the man waiting for the woman to be released from jail, but the song’s explosive chorus and Colin Blunstone’s lead vocals are utterly amazing on this track, bringing an emphatic charge that fits the song’s distant mellotron, percussive tack piano and White’s steady bass. Energetically, the album does a 360 with “A Rose for Emily,” another Argent song, this one much more plaintive and with a completely new lyrical theme. Based on a William Faulkner short story, “A Rose for Emily” is incredible musically minimalist tale of a spinster who lives and dies alone. The song simply features Argent’s piano backing and shared vocals between Blunstone and Argent, yet evokes such emotional depth.

“Maybe After He’s Gone” returns to romance, this time Blunstone mourns, “maybe… she’ll come back and love me again.” More exquisitely crafted vocal harmonies exude from the track, although the highlight of this track is drummer Hugh Grundy’s work. Grundy strikes quick with reverberating strikes during the verses, stops, pulls back in during the chorus, lather, rinse, repeat. Grundy’s drumming here is evocative of much of the musical aesthetic the Zombies prided themselves on: meticulously design yet an irrevocable feeling of spontaneity lying behind every corner. “Changes” features such spontaneity as well, commencing with a lone flute that reoccurs, throughout. Eastern-inflected rhythms coupled with all five Zombies on vocals can make “Changes” a challenging song at first listen but the excellent vocals and expert production even the song out, making even the outlandish earthbound. “Changes” was also the final recorded track during the sessions, finished just as their time was ending; White recalls, “the fellows in the white coats were removing the piano while we were recording it. That’s actually on the album!” I can’t hear it but I’ll take his word for it.

The final five tracks of Odessey and Oracle each deserve inordinate amounts of praise but I’ll be brief for a moment. “I Want Her, She Wants Me” is a pop essential. Once again, White gives a stellar performance on bass, making up for lost time. White’s bass was perhaps most neglected during earlier years but here and on most of Odessey, White gives great performances. Argent returns for vocals once again, as well as providing his harpsichord playing to the track. White’s “This Will Be Our Year” pushes the baroque pop the Zombies do so well even further, adding an awesome brass section to Blunstone’s strong vocal performance. The upbeat “Friends Of Mine” is a joyful ode to, well, friends. One of the most charismatic of all the songs, “Friends” has Blunstone tearing through names of friends, the recording ending with Blunstone’s gasp for breathe.

Of the final five, two stand out far beyond every other track on the album for me: the aforementioned “Time of the Season” and “Butcher’s Tale (Western Front 1914).” Upon first listening to”Butcher’s Tale”, I couldn’t help but be taken by surprise. The song is penned by Chris White, self admitted World War I buff, and the lyrics evoke the terror of war from the eyes of s soldier. The song seems somewhat out of place in the context of the album but it fits somehow and is definitely a creative zenith for the Zombies. White gives a rare lead vocal performance here, although his shaky vocals are perfectly suited for the lamentations: “I have seen a friend of mine/Hang on the wire, like some rag toy/Then in the heat, the flies come down/And cover up the boy.” His vocals are backed by a Phantom-of-the-Opera pedal organ they dragged to the studio specifically for the song. When White reaches the chorus, his voice takes a turn towards the atonal but one can’t help but feel the force behind his vocals, no matter how amateur. Powerful stuff.

And once again, we are back to “Time of the Season”. This was the first Zombies song I ever heard, I remember convincing myself in years past that the song was done by a Mo-Town band. The track is the epitome of smooth, from the amazing organ solos courtesy of Rod Argent to Grundy’s interesting rhythms and the instantly recognizable hand claps and ahhs. And while the song is constructed complexly, one can help but reach the conclusion that it just sounds too simple. The Zombies did what all great bands do, make the utterly impossible sound effortless.

Odessey and Oracle, in all the ways it separates itself from other albums of the era, was ultimately subject the methods of the time. The album ended as a rushed affair, which was the result of several factors. While the Zombies were guaranteed artistic control, CBS expected them to produce. So when the first singles produced by the album flopped, much to the dismay of both the Zombies and their benefactors, things began looking grim. The Zombies were still in the process of completing the mixing of the album at this point and seeing this failure was the last straw for the band. Since most of the time spent lately had been in the recording studio, the band wasn’t able to perform live and thus, had entered financial difficulties. The failure of the initial singles cemented it: the band would disband after the album was finished. Odyssey and Oracle was chosen as the title but rushed cover artwork led to a misspelling, “Odessey,” a mistake that wasn’t even noticed until it was too late. The album was released unceremoniously in England and only made it state-side by providence and the will of CBS A&R man, Al Kooper. By the time “Time of the Season” had become a hit single in the U.S., the band had been disbanded for almost a half a year.

The album has been released a myriad of times now, re-mastered, piled on with extras, extensive liner notes and the works. The brevity of Odessey allowed room for future versions to add mono and stereo versions, unreleased tracks and whatever else. But the core album, 12 tracks and about 34 minutes, is pure magic.