The Smashing Pumpkins' last official studio album, Machina: The Machines of God, opened with the line, "You know I'm not dead."
What a difference two years make.
The first verse former Pumpkins' leader Billy Corgan sings on the debut from his new band, Zwan, Mary Star of the Sea (January 28), immediately sets a more positive tone. "Lyric" blasts off with the line, "Here comes my faith to carry me on," as Corgan's voice is shadowed by bass player Paz Lenchantin's while former Pumpkin Jimmy Chamberlin drives the rhythm with jazzy torrents of drumming. The song ends with, "A lyric, a time, a crusade, a line/ One minute, a friend, a road without end."
The sunnier tone is just one of the significant changes made by Corgan, as well known for his ferocious guitar-playing and singing as for his singular musical vision. Less than a year after the Pumpkins' swan song, Corgan had already assembled the initial lineup of Zwan, which reunites him with powerful drummer Chamberlin, and adds former Chavez guitarist Matt Sweeney and former Tortoise bassist/guitarist Dave Pajo into the mix. In April they were joined by classically-trained cellist and bassist Lenchantin, a onetime member of A Perfect Circle.
The formidable three-guitar lineup of the band is one of two significant changes from the Pumpkins. The other is Sweeney and Lenchantin's strong backing vocals, which give the group a richer sound than the Pumpkins, whose vocal attack was nearly all Corgan's. The results are clear on the band's first single, "Honestly."
The straightforward rock song features a syncopated drum rhythm from Chamberlin and some airy, chiming psychedelic guitar lines, as well as seamless vocal interplay between Corgan and Lenchantin. The simple lyric about love, "I believe you mean the best that life can bring/ I believe in it all, honestly/ You can try, your heart is just as long as mine/ Is it ours to let go?" is more hopeful than much of the darker material from the Pumpkins' later albums. The video for the song was partially filmed at the Integration, a mystical "rejuvenation and time machine" building erected in Joshua Tree, California, in the mid-50's by George Van Tassel, a former test pilot for Howard Hughes and host of annual UFO conventions.
The "Honestly" single will feature two bonus cuts, a cover of the Iron Maiden classic "Number of the Beast" and the non-album track, "Freedom Ain't What It Used to Be."
While Corgan's lyrics for the Smashing Pumpkins were often concerned with the search for transcendence, spirituality and love in dark hours, his Zwan lyrics are even more focused on messianic visions of love, but with a more uplifting vibe. Corgan is billed as "Billy Burke" in the album's liner notes, a possible reference to a golden-haired Florida preacher of the same name, which gives the songs an evangelical feel.
But more than a preacher, Corgan acts as a spiritual cheerleader on tracks such as the swirling, psychedelic power pop song "Declarations of Faith," in which he sings, "I declare myself/ Declare myself of faith."
Whether or not the inside joke billing is religious in nature, Corgan clearly has salvation and tribute-paying on his mind. He gives a nod to his lifelong heroes, New Order, on the bouncy, new wave-y "Settle Down" and "El Sol." Again driven by the combination of Chamberlin's aggressive drumming and Lenchantin's throbbing bass line, "Settle Down" is another ode to devotion, sprinkled with the kind of wailing, fuzzed-out guitar lines familiar to fans of the Pumpkins' 1993 breakthrough, Siamese Dream.
The hard-driving, mythological "Ride a Black Swan" and Zeppelin-esque "Endless Summer" verge on classic arena rock, with their combination of distorted guitars and aggressive drumming. "Baby Let's Rock!" lets Corgan exorcise his Queen jones, with a funky backbeat, squiggly guitars and soaring, multi-tracked, angelic choruses.
The dreamy ballads "Of a Broken Heart" and "Heartsong" are classic Corgan tales of romantic woe, the former flavored with weepy slide guitar and cello, while in the latter Corgan slyly admits, "I use the same words to say the same things."
Corgan keeps his more grandiose side in check until near the end of the album, at which point he unleashes the 14-minute religious epic, "Jesus, I/ Mary Star of the Sea." The song begins with just Corgan's nasally vocals ("Jesus, I've taken my cross/ All to leave and follow thee") over a repeating guitar line, then explodes into a kaleidoscopic barrage of guitar solos. The solemn middle section leads into a majestic coda for an archetypal Corgan rock song of redemption, in which salvation is found in the character of a female savior.
Zwan are in the midst of celebrating the album's release with a sold-out, five-night stand at Corgan's favorite hometown haunt, the 1,100-capacity Metro in Chicago. Zwan took to the stage of the club on Sunday and Monday nights and will continue their residency with shows on Wednesday, Thursday and Saturday, according to the venue's owner.
The group played a three-night stand at the Metro's cross-town sister club, the Double Door, in April of last year. This week's shows mark the first time Corgan has returned to rock the Metro stage since he laid the Pumpkins to rest there with a cathartic, three-hour show in December 2000 (see "Pumpkins Circus Folds Up With Epic Show"). (He was part of a multi-artist benefit show last year during which he performed solo).
Following the Chicago shows, Zwan will jet over to Japan for four early February dates and then finish out the month in Europe with shows in Paris, London, Hamburg, Berlin, Milan, Lisbon and Madrid.