The Spring 2014 Sampler from Chicago’s Zen Dozer Records begins, fittingly, with a series of seemingly discordant noises coalescing into a driving beat, which then builds, adding layers of synth, guitar, and vocals until the song takes off with its arena-ready chorus. This, Ruffin’s “Middle Of,” is what Zen Dozer is all about.
Each of the eleven songs in this compilation features a group or artist fusing varied sounds and influences into something contemporary and interesting, demonstrating the impressively simultaneous diversity and unity of Zen Dozer’s lineup. On two tracks, Ruffin adds layer upon layer to a pulsing synth beat, soaring with guitars on “Middle Of” and taking a slightly darker turn on “Arrogance.” Catcher James contributes two tracks, the blues-guitar driven ode to lust that is “Hannah” and the album’s closer, “The Difference,” which leads with a haunting slide guitar before rising on a melancholy chorus. Between “Middle Of” and “The Difference,” Zen Dozer gives us a little bit of everything without ever letting us get too comfortable. Orion’s “WKRP” begins as a folksy, acoustic elegy but adds a snarling bite before leaving the listener with elegant vocal harmonies; and Number Nine’s “Christine” and “Violet” are well matched with Mom, Dad, It’s Evil’s “Encyclopedia Brown.” All three tracks bounce along on catchy guitar riffs, offering sunny vocals and sing-along choruses. Where Fight Nice blends a college-radio sound with the concussive percussion and guitar of the best of early-90s alternative rock on “Caught Near the End” and “Latest Report,” Bounte contributes “New Life,” a melding of techno and prog-rock that propelled by a series of unexpected sounds brought together by the return to an increasingly pleading chorus.
What Zen Dozer presents with this sampler is a roster of artists who have cast aside easy labels. Here, we see examples of work from musicians who focus on crafting songs that build upon themselves using a variety of elements—the unexpected blues riff or the gentle coo morphing into a snarl before falling back into a cushion of vocal harmony. What Zen Dozer has given us, ultimately, is a compilation to which we can nod our head, tap our foot, and sing along—a compilation we will want to listen to over and over again.