Essential albums: Zero 7

Beneath the restrained delivery and surface polish, Henry Binns and Sam Hardaker's songs and instrumentals show a talent for harmonic progression that's consistently impressive and occasionally jaw-dropping. Simple Things (2001) and When It Falls (2004) are Zero 7's first two albums, and they remain the band's finest releases.

Zero 7

country of origin:

Chillout, ambient pop, lounge, retro pop, cinematic

decades active:
00's - 10's

essential releases:

  • Simple Things (2001, Ultimate Dilemma)
  • When It Falls (2004, Ultimate Dilemma)

Reviewed by Mike G

Ever since the late 90's when "chillout" came to mean a blander, more pop-friendly strain of ambient dance music, some very good music has been ignored, tainted by the association. I have to confess that it took me many years to see past the negative associations that came with British band Zero 7's commercial success, to step back and perceive the true beauty within. The barbs, particular from the UK music media, all seemed to stem from a perception that, because Zero 7's music was easy to listen to, it was therefore "easy listening" and bereft of substance. It's just cafe wallpaper, they sneered, polite and non-threatening sounds for philistines and affluent middle-aged trendies.

It seems at least some of this hostility had to do with overexposure. When "chillout" was at its commercial peak in the early to mid 2000's (remember all those Ministry of Sound Chillout Sessions albums?), Zero 7's music was indeed everywhere: cafes, shops, parties and almost every new chillout compilation CD. Embraced variously by mainstream critics, middle-aged parents, old ravers and UK music collective The Big Chill, the band's status as media darlings made them an easy target.

Yet with the benefit of hindsight, none of this matters anymore. For beneath the restrained delivery and surface polish, Henry Binns and Sam Hardaker's songs and instrumentals show a talent for harmonic progression that's consistently impressive and occasionally jaw-dropping. If fans who pride themselves on being discerning can't hear that, then they're simply not listening closely enough.

Simple Things (2001) and When It Falls (2004) are Zero 7's first two albums, and they remain the band's finest releases.

So what is Zero 7's music, exactly? In America the smooth jazz tag has been applied more than once but that's hugely misleading. Bins and Hardaker's chord progressions, while often clever and sometimes unpredictable, move with too strong a sense of purpose and resolve too beautifully to be compared with anything so bland or wandering. There's some jazzy signatures, it's true, but the music is more a kind of retro downtempo pop, a fusion of live performance with electronic touches that echoes all kinds of sources including psychedelia, old BBC TV themes, 60's bachelor pad music, 70's soul and easy-listening West Coast rock.

Crucial to the richness of the harmonies is the band's distinctive instrumental blend based on glowing Wurlitzer and Rhodes pianos and luscious strings, further coloured by sundry other instruments from acoustic guitar to Moog synth. Then there's the guest vocalists: husky Sia Furler, the truly soulful Osmond Wright and the pure and sweet strains of Sophie Barker, the latter having also done outstanding work with Danish band Bliss. The band arranges and performs with great finesse; within the warm wrappings there's light and shade, tension and release, and no instrument or vocal is wasted or unnecessary. It's inspired composing, crafted with fine musicianship.

The band's harmonic gifts make the instrumentals stand out every bit as well as the best songs. The ultra loungey "Polaris" echoes French band Air at its retro best, while "Give It Away" positively hugs you with its waves of euphoric strings, pretty guitars and glowing electric pianos. "Look Up" is a melodic wonder, a 6-minute mini-instrumental epic that rushes by, gushing with happy vibes while not being the least bit cheesy.

If chillout as a marketing fad has somehow passed you by, you can at least approach Zero 7's music without preconceptions. If on the other hand you loathed the whole era, lend your ears to these two albums and you might be very pleasantly surprised.

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