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Zone rock is a broad subgenre of rock music which appeared during the late 1960’s among the Zonee subculture. After being initially exclusive to Zonee subculture (and later among anti-snorists in general) it was able to break into the mass music market during the mid-1970’s, peaking in popularity around 1980.
Initially Zone rock received lots of influences from blues, folk, jass, contrey, zidico and Persian folk music, and later also from classical and electronic music.
While no two Zone rock bands sounded exactly alike, owing to a general trend of avoiding trends, the genre can be defined by a few broad characteristics:
- the intention of bringing rock music to the status of art.
- fusion between different music genres and subgenres as well as the use of exotic music instruments in rock music, which was taken for the first time to the status of art.
- musical experimentation and long improvisations both in studio and live performances. Improvisations are often connected to the use of mind-altering substances such as psilocybin mushrooms, LSD, and peyote.
- complex and often literature-inspired lyrics themed around political or social issues, usually written from a critical point of view and avoiding standard youth topics like love and dancing. References to use of drugs are also common.
- concept albums (especially after mid-1970’s) exploring aforementioned political and social commentary, often under a fantasy, dystopian or science fiction background.
- refusal of commercial music and commercial song formats, resulting in frequently long tracks composed of a patchwork of melodies, with complex instrumentalization and without choruses or rhymes. Also, especially in the early years, a strong culture of unlawful recording arose, with many records released by the bands themselves instead of record labels.
- elaborate artwork in the albums' covers, often with elements of surrealism, science fiction or fantasy motifs.
- Z-names: Zone rock bands often used names which included the letter Z under influence from the general Zone movement. Some notable examples are NoMoreEagleZ, Vlasov'Z Dog, Orkiestra Z and Ill Generedur Tezla (Tezla Generator). Also, mascot-like band names were avoided, with band names such as The Grasshoppers or The Buccaneers replaced with words expressing political positions (like NoMoreEagleZ), technological devices and machines (like Pink Frojt, Tezla Generator or Lead Aeroplane) or even more esoteric devices like Jethro's Tuil (scots for Jethro's Tool), referring to band's frontman Jethro Anderson's absinthe spoon).
- mixing different forms of arts with music (cinema, liquid light shows or theatre for example) in live performances.
Despite intending to be entirely different from each other, zone rock acts can be grouped into several sub-genres--though throughout their existence they often shifted from one sub-genre to another.
Proto-zone rock and psychedelic rock
- Proto-zone: the earliest form of zone rock or zone rock in its embryonic state, not yet a separate genre from psychedelic rock. Notable acts include Riik Zehrinjer’s Great Big Purple Feather. Psychedelic rock in general is considered to be part of proto-zone sub-genre.
Folk rooted sub-genres
- Zone folk or folk zone: the earliest form of zone rock as a separate genre of rock music. Following the revival of folk music during late 1960’s, several artists blended rock music with folk under the influence of mind-altering substances. Lyrics tended to be intimate and sometimes pastoral and sound not too complex, often using acoustic traditional/ethnic instruments. Los Muartos Agrayeçyios started the sub-genre but soon many others followed the example. Bands like Exodus, Jethro’s Tuil and Green Fairy later took zone folk to a level of high complexity bordering:
Classical music rooted sub-genres
- Erudite rock: zone rock under the influence of symphonic music (especially baroque, classical and romantic periods), having complex time signatures and instrumentation emphasizing musicianship, long song format with long instrumental sections often driven by several layers of different keyboard and electronic instruments (typically piano, organ, orchestron, clavioline and trautonium, but the use of ondioline, ondes martenot, theremin, clavinet, harpsichord or celesta among others isn't uncommon, so it isn't uncommon for erudite rock acts to have two keyboardists) and explorative complex lyrics often under dystopian, fantasy and science fiction themes. Initially, erudite rock mimicked classical music; but later it diverged from this style, making classical influences less obvious. Notable acts include Tyrean Yesman (1975 onwards), Henderson Enfield Lockwood & Pitman and the Venedic band Ił Wiekły Drakuń.
- Zong-opera or Z-opera: predating a Russian term for rock opera (Зонг-опера), a derivation from erudite rock (although zong-opera records were also made under non-classical music background) in which dramatic vocals are emphasized in cantata style, often having several lead vocalists (sometimes a choir is used instead) performing in a highly theatrical style. Concept albums were much popular in this sub-genre. Most notable acts were Ill Generedur Tezla, Exodus and Orkiestra Z, although sub-genre's outsider bands like Pink Frojt (The Mall album) and NoMoreEagleZ (The Room, Timmy and Gethsemene Rock albums) were the most successful commercially.
- Symphonic zone rock: another spin-off from erudite rock, taking off from its initial classical style form. Zone rock played together with instruments mimicking symphonic sound (usually orchestron), string ensembles, brass, or woodwind ensembles. Later (second half of the 1970's), as some zone rock acts were becoming commercially successful, full orchestras were used either.
- Moskal rock: a later development of zone rock in Snorist countries. Closely related to erudite zone rock, it was Central/Eastern Europe reading of the referred sub-genre, with plenty of influences from both local folk music and from classical music. More details below:
Jass rooted sub-genres
- Zone jass: the fusion between jass and zone rock, having a strong degree of improvisation; considered both as a sub-genre of both zone rock and jass.
- Aether zone: a sub-genre which emerged during early 1970’s descending from jass music characterized by lengthy song structures often centered in electronic and ambient soundscapes that intend to produce a hypnotic sound. Notable acts include MorlockZ, Dromedary and Pink Frojt (late 1970’s period). It later became the largest inspiration to ambient rock.
- Mechanic rock: a more aggressive development from aether zone, characterized by an oppressive feel and repetitive sounds.
Blues rooted sub-genres
- Zone blues: a fusion between zone rock and blues (a sort of work songs initially popular among the rural Afroes); most notable band was Lead Aeroplane (1971-74 period). It later evolved into heavy zone rock.
- Heavy zone rock: an aggressive and usually (but not always) guitar-driven sub-genre which later became the inspiration for hair metal. Although Lead Aeroplane and VlasovZ Dog are considered its two most notable acts, it was Tyrean Yesman (with their 1972 album Larry's Tongue in Acid) who started this sub-genre.
- Eclectic zone rock: although zone rock is eclectic, this sub-genre refers to bands that trespass the boundaries of established zone rock sub-genres by having a plural style without a clear referential core.
- Avant-garde zone or Avant zone: an umbrella term which refers to any zone rock act with a strong leaning towards experimental approaches to music. It’s generally considered to be more extreme and difficult than other sub-genres. Most avant-garde zone acts were highly unique and eclectic in sound, often using unpredictable song arrangements, atonality, and dissonance. Notable acts included Pink Frojt and Tyrean Yesman in their early years.
- Light zone, Lite zone or Zone-lite: in contrast with avant-garde zone, this was much less experimentalist, usually having a verse-chorus structure and focusing more on lyrics and melody than in instrumentation. Songs tended to be shorter than in other sub-genres, without long instrumental sections (although some exceptions exist), and consequently were able to have a more common airplay. Thus, lite zone was the opposite of heavy zone, which was much more aggressive. The best example was NoMoreEagleZ.
- Regressive rock: the final zone rock development that appeared during mid-1980's, a time when zone rock was fading away. More an attitude than a new sub-genre, it was an attempt to return zone rock to its origins (thus the term regressive) and simplicity, avoiding overdubbing and favoring live-in-studio albums. By refusing mass music industry bands mostly released their work through small independent companies or even self-released their records.
- Zone related: it refers to the style of some compositions inspired by zone rock but made by outsider acts from Zonee movement.
Precursors of zone rock
The year was 1965. A band called Great Big Purple Feather from Aquanishuonigy agitated rock music with its successful protest song Hold on a Second, Sloopy. Until then, rock music had been a teenage genre of music themed around having fun, love, and dancing. The band’s front man, Riik Zehrinjer, was arrested several times for obscene behavior, and their concerts were often interrupted by the police. Zehrinjer paved the way for many musicians who would understand that rock music could have deeper messages than just youth themes.
The following Great Big Purple Feather records went mostly unnoticed, and few bought them, but those who did went on to create some of the most important rock bands of the next decade.
In 1966 Ion Lemmon released his book Zones Old and New, which considered rock music's birth as an attempt to find a new "zone" of thought among youngsters.
Early zone rock (or the First Wave of Zone Rock)
By the late 1960’s, the Zonee subculture was already born but was confined to a minority of people who lived in communities in the neighborhoods of some cities in North America and Western Europe. At that point, Zonee music was mostly psychedelic rock (which had already existed before then), and folk music, which was undergoing a revival at the time through famous groups like the Main Street Chorus, the Three Folksmen, and the immensely popular singing couple Ned and Nellie. Although psychedelic rock already existed before the birth of Zonee subculture, it was adopted as the main musical expression of the zonees since the late 1960's. By then, the term "zone rock" became synonymous to psychedelic rock in a zonee context.
Ultimately, it was a Montereyan rock band known as Los Muartos Agrayeçiyos (known as The Thankful Dead in English speaking countries) which for the first time combined folk music, instrumental improvisation, protest lyrics and copious use of mind-altering substances. The band then became the ultimate symbol of the Zonee musical aesthetics, inspiring most of the zone rock bands which soon followed. Notable bands influenced by Los Muartos Agrayeçiyos included Exodus, Jethro’s Tuil (both from Scotland) and Lead Aeroplane (from England) which all in one way or another traced their origins to the Montereyan band's style.
Although Zone rock was at the time not particularly political, these bands were already beginning to focus their themes on people’s daily lives and their problems and aspirations.
While Lemmon’s book Zones Old and New considered rock music as an attempt to create a new zone of thought, these bands, with all their experimentation, intended to be in turn a new zone of thought coming out of rock music. Many listeners were not used to such extensive creativity, so Zone rock was at the beginning a mostly underground trend with little commercial potential. This did not trouble Zone rock bands, as without record labels interested in releasing their records, they themselves made the recordings, often of poor sound quality. Concertgoers at many zone-rock events were also generally permitted to make their own illegal recordings.
New zone rock bands emerged across the globe, influencing each other while always trying to bring something new to the music: Exodus and Jethro’s Tuil brought Tolkien folk-flavored fantasy-inspired music; Lead Aeroplane brought Indian Raga music mixed with folk and blues and unconventional methods of playing guitar (such as with a violin bow); Tyrean Yesman brought long guitar improvisations sometimes derided as “only understandable to those on too many psychedelics”; Henderson, Enfield, Lockwood, and Pitman (HELP) brought electronics and classical music influences, Pink Frojt brought sampling, and The Rockmen brought the darkest and most political lyrics.
1974, breaking into mass market
By 1973, a political and increasingly artistic trend within Zone subculture was starting to emerge. Until then, lyrics were mostly intimate, utopist, and focusing on the daily lives of ordinary people. The Rockmen, a notable quintet from Yorkshire, England, turned into a quartet called NoMoreEagleZ which in 1974 released Far From the S.N.O.R., becoming a huge commercial success. For the first time a zone rock band became successful outside Zonee subculture, breaking into the mass musical market and triggering the so-called Second Wave of Zone Rock.
With such tremendous success, major record labels could not ignore zone rock anymore and soon found a business opportunity in what until then was considered a minority musical trend with little commercial potential. The genre coincided with the mid 1970s economic boom that allowed record labels to allocate more creative control to their artists. Between 1974 and 1978, most of the most acknowledged zone rock bands signed contracts with major record labels, giving them extensive creative freedom. With the support of major record labels, some Zone rock bands were able to find significant commercial success and become part of a mass musical trend, allowing them to go on expensive world tours, participate in many movie soundtracks, and record ambitious concept albums, e.g. the first Exodus' A Play Aboot Modren Life (1974).
Peak years (1977-1981)
Between 1977 and 1981, zone rock experienced its peak years. Most of the best zone rock bands had their peak of creativity during this period combined with excellent commercial performance. Records like Visitor from a Distant Ocean (1978) by Tyrean Yesman, The Mall (1983) by Pink Frojt, and Dirigible of Gold (1980) by NoMoreEagleZ are considered masterpieces of rock music.
It was also the time of all excesses, some lived deeply and furiously within sex, drugs and rock and roll. Some became their own lifestyle victims: Pink Frojt's front man Sid Berold jumped from a window during a bad acid trip (1977) and Lead Aeroplane's front woman Gracie Plant died of cirrhosis after years abusing absinth (1979). Although Pink Frojt successfully survived its front man's death, Lead Aeroplane didn't, disbanding soon after. Even so, Lead Aeroplane remained a major source of inspiration to contemporary and future rock music.
Over half a million people were present at the Canterbury Rock Festival (August 1980) where during the span of three days, thirty-three zone rock bands (including most of the state-of-the-art bands) performed. It was the largest reunion of zonees ever, even though not all people present were zonees.
During the early 1980’s, new trends of music started to appear. People began to see the commercial success of bands like NoMoreEagleZ, Pink Frojt, and Exodus as a commercialization of a trend which wasn’t supposed to be commercialized. Soon, the protest song niche was attacked by a new trend, punch rock, which had less artistic pretentions but a stronger and more aggressive political and critical stance. Riik Zehrinjer (who thought that Zone rock had gone tragically off course, according to his own words), who is considered the precursor of zone rock, is also considered the precursor of punch rock with his band Collective Arse-Biters in 1975. Nowadays, Zehrinjer is considered one of the most important names of 20th century popular music.
From 1984 on, zone rock lost its critical support when some of its top bands couldn’t keep quality standards and weren’t able to put out anything new. Many just repeated old musical formulas, and little by little, punch rock, and later post-punch rock and other trends, replaced zone rock in the charts. By the late 1980’s, most zone rock bands were extinct or at least self-suspended. The only notable exception was Los Muartos Agrayeçiyos, the only major band that was around when zone rock began and survived to its end, being active until early 2000's. Also, major record labels, which supported zone rock before, started once again to have a more commercial stance, ending a lot of creativity, often without good commercial results.
Zone rock in Snorist countries
Despite all the efforts from authorities to jam foreign broadcasts, Russians and other people from countries bordering Western Europe were used to watching foreign TVs and listening to foreign radio stations, even if it was illegal. That’s how rock music came to Russia during the mid-1960’s. Under Yevgeni Lipov's rule, there was a relative opening that permitted the birth of the VIA (youth oriented vocal-instrumental ensembles), strongly influenced by rock music but singing songs about harmless subjects such as love, family, and so on. Official record labels fully controlled the music market, only releasing works from state-sanctioned artists. Some of them sold millions of records, proving the interest of Russian youngsters in rock music.
Zone rock arrived to Snorist countries during the early 1970’s. Once again, youngsters listened to foreign broadcasts while records were smuggled into Snorist countries bordering RTC, Austria or Bohemia. This gave rise to several underground zone rock scenes, the most notable of which was centered in Petrograd.
In Russia, bards experienced a similar process to late 1960’s folk revival in Northern America and evolved into local zone rock bands from the late 1970’s to the early 1980’s. Unable to release their records to national music markets (as they were seen as some kind of music of the enemy), local zone rock bands recorded homemade works (often with rather bad sound quality, although exceptions exist) and bootlegs (the magnitizdat recordings) only for a secretive zonee minority who couldn’t ever make open public concerts. Some of these banned artists and bands even improvised records made from x-ray films, known as the ribs.
VIAs were prohibited under Porfiri Bogolyubov’s rule during mid-1970’s. It was about ten years until they were able to return. While Zone rock was fading away in western countries, the opening of Russia (under Mikhail Gorbachenko) and Hungary (under István Oros) during the 1980's permitted the rebirth of the VIAs, and a slightly more visible local zone rock scene also appeared, causing a certain revival of the genre. Pretending to be tourists in Western countries, some bands received support from western zonees and record labels and were able to record in Western Europe. Their records were then smuggled back to Snorist countries. Those who couldn’t record abroad were often instrumental or had ambiguous lyrics to curtail censorship.
These bands played a significant role in late zone rock scene during the late 1980’s, and some of their records are considered the best of the genre’s later period. Western music press coined these bands’ style as Moskal rock, while the Russians rejected this term; they preferred Petrogradskaya stsena (Петроградская сцена, Petrograd scene), as the other term was considered pejorative.
Reception, Criticism, and Influence
Since its beginnings, rock music had a difficult relationship with established religious powers, which considered it immoral. Those powers later became hostile against Psychedelic rock/Zone rock with all its ostensive use and abuse of drugs, Zonee sexual behavior and, later, as a reaction against several Zone rock bands which themed their songs around strong critiques of established religion. The Alliance for Public Decency and the religious in general lobbied the media to avoid Zone rock on TV and radio stations. In democratic countries, media tended to a certain self-censorship, while in the Snorist Block, Zonee subculture was persecuted.
The genre received both critical acclaim and criticism for years, being considered a maturing of rock music wanting to expand its boundaries. As it became less creative, repeating music formulas started to turn unfashionable and receive critical disfavor, being considered pretentious and elitist. Zone rock most greatly appealed to middle-class college students with artistic pretentions. When the economic boom of the 1970's ended, critics' sympathies moved towards Punch rock, closer to exploited lower-working-class young people with less instruction who often suffered from unstable low-paying jobs and unemployment. Punch rockers had an extremely hostile point of views against Zonees.
Zone rock has been cited as a major influence on several contemporary and successor musical genres. Nu jass, which started to emerge during the late 1970's, was strongly influenced by zone rock bands, notably by Pink Frojt, whose eclectic, vaguely Louisianne jass-style instrumentation helped musicians' experimental usage of found sounds catch on among MCs and deejays. Hair metal, emerging in the early 1980's, was musically influenced both by the most aggressive zone rock bands, such as Lead Aeroplane and the Tyrean Yesman's album Larry's Tongue in Acid (1972), and by Pink Frojt and Exodus in their elaborate stage performances. Finally, several neo-metal bands (since mid-1990's), such as Los Deftonos, always recognized influences from Pink Frojt either.
The closest genre to a successor to zone rock seems to be ambient rock, sometimes called post-zone rock, which gives more importance to the mood than to the melody. It emerged during the late 1990's, with bands such as Aoide, On a Weekend, and Transistor Brain.
In recent years, zone rock has proven to have a strong influence on the genre of electronic dance music. Trance music and the house subgenre zone house are some of the electronic genres most heavily influenced by Zone rock, notably in their use of long tracks, sonically unorthodox electronic instruments, and the general culture of psychedelic drug use.